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Ash Wednesday--Beginning Lent


at Momentary Taste

It is my sincere hope that I will be able to return to Flos Carmeli and post more on matters spiritual during this season.

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A Word from Paul


". . . But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'" Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians. (12:8)

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"Let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins." (1 Peter 4:8)

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More on I Corinthians 13


Writing to a correspondent this morning, I realized how little I've actually been able to share of some of my reflections. The question came up that if Jesus exemplified love, what are we to make of the incidents of the money-changers in the temple and Jesus calling the Pharisees "white-washed sepulchres." Was this patient? Kind?

I think those are excellent questions and they have sparked this short rejoinder to continue some thinking and praying through 1 Corinthians 13.

My first point is that the language of the passage is neither hyperbole nor can it be taken in a literal sense without contextualization. What does it mean to be patient? To be kind? What does it mean to "endure all things?" Does that mean that one stands by while the holocaust occurs because you love all people?

As to the last, I have not yet progressed so far in my reflections. However, to the former, I might have some suggestions as to how the words can be interpreted in a context. Certainly patience refers to endurance and being faithful through trial. Perhaps when we read "Love is patient," we can substitute as a near, but incomplete equivalent, "Love never loses hope." That is, the patient subsists in abiding with a person one loves with the expectation that ultimately the goal will be reached and we will all see salvation. I do NOT think it means that one abides with a person in the constant hope that our love will change them in some human fashion. I think the patience is patience unto eternity, not unto mere Earthly change, although we may never stop praying and hoping for that as well. To give an example, to be patient with a grumpy, ungodly person, is to hope that he or she will become a grumpy, godly person. The patience here does not necessarily entail the hope that the person become cheerful and godly--although that is not a bad thing to hope for--it isn't the necessary thing.

The next phrase, "Love is kind," might be interpreted to mean rather that love always has at heart the best interests of the beloved. That is true kindness, not simply the surface show of etiquette or hospitality. If seen in this way, the actions Jesus takes with regard to the Pharisees and moneychangers become supremely kind. If He does not shock these people into alertness, into being alive and awake, they will spend eternity in their torpor. Would it be a kindness to bless someone into Hell? Kindness also should never be confused with niceness, which as C.S. Lewis points out, can often accompany the most dastardly and evil acts. Niceness is mere surface, kindness is to the bone.

These thoughts are not definitive, nor, probably well-formed or complete. But they offer a surface view of the depth of this passage. And I hope they provoke you to going to your Bible, picking it up and spending some time with Paul--seeking understanding from this great teacher of the Church.

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1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages commonly read at weddings. It is often perceived as a hymn to love, but if we hold to this perception we do so at our peril. It isn't merely a lecture about the qualities of love. Paul tells us in the preceding verse, "But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way."

What follows then is a way. But how is it a way and what are we to do about it? After a brief prologue in which Paul tells us that without love all is in vain, he launches into a series of verses about the qualities of love--and this is where the going gets difficult. In verse 4a, for example, he tells us that "Love is patient and kind." This seems simple enough. However, if Paul is showing us a way, how are we to act on this? Should we draw patience out of ourselves and attempt to show it in love? What then, we become Pelagians, thinking that we can of our own efforts accomplish what is necessary?

If the verses that make up 1 Corinthians 13 are a way, then we are called to follow it, not merely admire the beautiful language that comprises it. How then do we act on "Love is patient and kind?" Paul doesn't tell us "Be paitent and kind." Instead he gives us a sort of field guide to love--look for these characteristics, and you'll know you've found it, and thus found the way.

We know that the way Paul is describing is love. We also know that Jesus is love. Not coincidentally, the qualities that describe love also describe Jesus. And perhaps this is the solution to Paul's "Best Way." The way of love is the way of Jesus.

Again, that seems simple, but how then does Paul show us this way? Are these guideposts supposed to help us recognize Jesus? Are they calls to change our behaviors? Are they a plea to open ourselves to the transforming power of love and recognize it as more than emotion and desire (although never precluding those two as well) but as a series of actions built on the fragile foundations of desire?

All of human desire is an arrow pointing home. All of our desire, whether we can see it or not is for one thing. Aquinas points out that no one desires what they think is truly bad--they have somehow led themselves into the belief that the evil they desire is, in fact a good. The revolutionary who blows up innocent people is advancing the freedom of his people, and so on. So, if desire is the arrow pointing home, the compass, perhaps what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 is how to read the compass properly. Look at what you love and see if it meets all of these standards, and if not, then it is not fully what you desire, but perhaps another signpost on to something that better fits the description. Smaller loves gradually point the way to the Greater Love, just as rivulets run into streams, rivers, and the vast ocean.

If desire is the compass, there can be no question that humankind goes out of its way to deconstruct the compass and make all directions the direction home--and therefore none of them are. But, perhaps, a proper reading of St. Paul will give us an indication of true north and point us the way of proper love. We can't achieve it by ourselves, but we can desire it, pray for it, and be prepared to recognize it when it comes knocking at the front door.

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A Pair of Observations

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There are times in thinking when one line of thought leads is some odd way to another. So it was the other day as I was thinking about who knows what and it occurred to me that it takes some of us an entire lifetime to learn to say, "Yes." Others seem to grasp the point much earlier in life. St. Therese leanred "Yes" very early on. I have not yet done so. Learning to say yes, mean yes, and live yes--what a formidable task. But it is all made possible through love:

"Many waters cannot destroy love,
for love is stronger than death. . . "

It is only on the tenuous bridge of love that humanity crosses from one generation to the next. We cannot cross in any other way, but looked at today it seems so much more tenuous than it ever has. Surely this is mere chronological bias--surely. All times must have seemed this way to the people living in them. After all, how many times did God have to tell us that the right thing to do is to give some food to the hungry. Surely our own innate human understanding should make this a point that needs no further reinforcement from a supernatural agency? And yet, when it is not said and repeated constantly, the vast majority of us tend to fall back on "I, me, mine."

Anyway--you can see how thoughts start in one way and end in another. And I am intrigued by the thought that love is that slender bridge, the rope bridge across the chasm that looks at any moment like it might be swept away, and yet which, because of its Foundation, is more solid than the rock it is anchored to. And yet, we trust it so little. Or perhaps we don't, but there are those among us who look at it askance.

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The Frustration of the Psalms

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Morning prayer, day-in, day-out 7/365 with rarely a break. And each round of the weeks, I experience something new in the Psalter, I hear something different as the words are spoken. I experience the prayers from where I am at that time, and so they have a different savor on the tongue, in the mind, in the heart.

And today there is a certain sense of joy and frustration.

from Psalter, Wednesday Week 1 of Ordinary Time

My God, the sons of men
find refuge in the shelter of your wings.

They feast on the riches of your house;
they drink from the stream of your delight.
In you is the source of life
and in your light we see light.

Keep on loving those who know you,
doing justice for upright hearts.
Let the foot of the proud not crush me
nor the hand of the wicked cast me out.

See how the evil-doers fall!
Flung down, they shall never arise.

While I relish the mercy of the Lord, I am often aghast at how He allows the wicked to rule and retain power. Ruthless, brutal, heartless, and cruel--the leadership of the world is so often the leadership of oppression. This is true from governments down to small businesses. Wanton small acts of cruelty from the company my wife worked for that ordered her to put two staples into the application of any person of color to the Lehman Brothers and other precipitators of our present crisis. Will they suffer from it? Not at all, and yet the suffering they have caused and will cause is incalculable.

Do the evil-doers fall? Rarely. How often are those who consistently vote for the extermination of small lives cast out of office--aren't they rather celebrated and extolled? How frequently do we witness any comeuppance?

And yet, I don't really want to see comeuppance either. Rather, I want to see the evil-doers fall--fall into the arms of God and cease to do evil. I want to see the sources of the world's evils dry up--avarice, pride, ambition, lust for power. And I know that they cannot go entirely because it is these drivers that given humanity some of its greatness some of its ability to cope with almost anything. Mysteriously, love is not a tremendous motivator to exploration of new worlds. It is the Dionysian that propels us--but even as tempered, it hurls us toward the stars, untrammeled it hurls us toward Hell itself.

And so the frustration of the psalms. I read the line and at first I want to see the evil-doer cast down--in fact, like the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, I have a little list. It's not even alphabetical, but ranked. And sometimes I think, Lord, if you saw fit to smite these people, I would not be tremendously troubled. And then I go to confession.

Nevertheless, it would be good if I could see the evil-doers fall--fall into the arms of our Lord and cease to do evil. That, in fact, would be more satisfying than to see them destroyed. And yet, it happens so infrequently--or so it seems.

But I have to call to mind the words of St. Paul who reminds us that the sower of the seed is often not privileged to see the harvest of that same crop. So, I suppose by that logic, I do my part in the fall of evil-doers when I return goodness for malice, blessings for curses. "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head." (Rom 12:20 quoting Proverbs 25:21-22).

Oh, but how satisfying it would be to see some of the evil of the world lessen, to see some surcease of the repletion of the foul.

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"I will praise Him still. . ."


I discovered only this morning that I have been off by a week in my morning prayer--praying out of synch as it were. As that is the case, I'll continue being off by a week for this day because of the psalm that speaks so loudly to me right now:

from Psalm 42

Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise Him still,
my savior and my God.

Around me are any number of causes for sorrow and despair. I received alarming and difficult news from a dear friend, for whom I ask your prayers. Matter at work are difficult and require much prayer and reflection. And then there are the larger things wrong--these show up in minor, but still frightening, ways such as the smaller number of advertisements in the Church Bulletin, the "for Rent" sign on the house next door.

Father in heaven, when your strength takes possession of us we no longer say: Why are you cast down, my soul? . . . Inspire us to yearn for you always, like the deer for running streams, unti lyou satisfy every longing in heaven.

Note, every longing in heaven--not all the yearning for peace and certainty that we have here on Earth--but every longing in heaven.

I truly feel the weight of the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." I would that they were less interesting. And yet everything is allowed by God for the purposes of proving us and refining us and making us more capable of heaven. Refinement is always painful, burning away the dross always difficult. And yet our hope is in what is left behind once all of the excess has been done way with.

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