Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Progress" Is Not Progress

         We are preparing to send our first-born off to his freshman year of college in the fall, for which reason a thoughtful friend has lent us a book called DisOrientation: The 13 “isms” That Will Send You To Intellectual  “La-La Land”.  It is a collection of essays edited by John Zmirak with contributions by such luminaries as Jimmy Akin, Robert Spencer, and Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (a.k.a. “Fr. Z”), among others.  Its purpose is to prepare prospective college students for the various intellectual traps that await them, such as Relativism, Hedonism, Utilitarianism, etc.  One of my favorite essays in the collection is Peter Kreeft’s contribution on Progressivism.  He starts out by clearly delineating what it is to be a “progressive”:

The opposite of Progressivism is conservatism or traditionalism. A conservative, by definition, is a happy person, one who is happy with what is.  It is only for that reason he wants to conserve it.  A progressivist, on the other hand, is by definition an unhappy person, one who is unhappy with what is.  It is only for that reason he wants to change it . . . Adam and Eve were conservatives until the Devil made them into progressives.  For the Devil himself was the first progressivist.  The other angels were happy with God and His will, but the Devil wanted to progress to something better.

Now, Kreeft may be having a bit of mischievious fun with his argumentum ad Satanam, but his point is nonetheless valid.  Satan’s chief sin was Pride, a belief that he knew better, and isn’t the belief that one’s self knows better than the unenlightened rubes of the past and the ignorant and/or evil-minded boobs of the present the driving force of progressivism?

Progress? I think not . . .
     Kreeft notes various “justifications” for the assumptions of Progressivism: evolution, technological progress, etc., and he uses the term “chronological snobbery” to sum up the attitude that something is undesirable simply because it is not new.  The progressive’s dislike of “what is” is not the result of any actual qualities of what is, but is based solely on when what happens to be ising. That’s why the progressives rely on “justifications”: they need to persuade others who are actually interested in the situation on the ground. While Kreeft doesn’t put it quite this way, a consequence of all this is that the positions and policy prescriptions of progressives very often are not rooted in reality but in the felt need to be “progressing” to . . . well . . . who knows? 
     The progressive tendency is not simply a political view, it is a mindset that finds expression in politics, in culture, and in the Church. It is particularly problematical in the Church, because the Church is founded on the unchanging revelation of an eternal God. While there is a place for “progress”, here progress consists in faithfully applying the eternal principles to new situations (development), in making the Church more fully what it has always been, rather than “progressing” to something new. We should keep this combination of principle and practice in mind.  Despite its Divine source, there’s something very down-to-earth and human about Catholic Doctrine: Christians have found it not only possible to live by that teaching, but have flourished through it: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
     That’s why I find it odd that those who advocate “progressing” beyond the magisterial teaching of the Church claim that they are drawing on the “lived experience” of Christians.  That’s nonsense, of course, because as we saw above Church teaching has always been the lived experience of Christians. In its place they would put things that have never been, such as homosexual marriage, or things that have been tried and failed, such as the panoply of ecclesial innovations that can be found in the rapidly declining “mainstream” Protestant denominations.
     In the end, “Christian Progressivism” is an oxymoron, and a double-irony.  First, progressives advocate moving away from any signs of the Transcendent (Eucharistic Adoration, Ad Orientem worship, incense and bells, etc), and from Biblical and magisterial moral teaching; for a Christian, however, progress means precisely moving closer to the transcendent God.  Not only that, they fail even on their own terms: they reject the 2,000 years of human experience embodied in Sacred Tradition, all the while claiming to align themselves more closely with experience.  Progressivism is problematic in any context, but in the Church it is impossible.  Instead, we should follow St. Paul’s advice: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Vivaldi - Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major (RV537)

This was one of the first - maybe the first - piece of classical music to capture my imagination many, many years ago. Never fails to get my heart pounding.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (20 July 2014)

     Welcome yet again to “Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival”, a weekly gathering on the first day of the week, that is to say, the day of the Resurrection, in which Catholic bloggers share their posts for the previous week.  The main site is here, at This That and the Other Thing.

Novices in The Sisters of Life, founded 1991.
   This past week has seen reminders of the fallenness of our world, from the shooting down of an unarmed Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine (and the bizarre antics surrounding it on the part of some of the actors on the scene) to events of a more personal nature for me (no doubt the same could be said for all of us).
      This puts me in mind of this week’s question for Sunday Snippets (posted by Snippets creator RAnn at the main site): whether there were any religious sisters in my parish growing up, and whether there are any now.  Growing up I attended schools run by the Sisters of Charity in Ohio and the Sisters of Mercy in Maine; both schools are still operating, but both no longer have any religious sisters.  There are still Sisters of Mercy here in the Diocese of Portland (and I assume there are still Sisters of Charity in the Diocese of Cincinnati) but they are a much diminished presence.  That’s a great shame.  The sisters are a public sign of the inbreaking of God’s Grace in our fallen world, a reminder that in our brokenness we can still devote our lives to Christ and the service of others.  That’s why I also prefer to see sisters wearing distinct and recognizable habits, not because I’m an old-fashioned crank (although I may be that), but because what good is a sign if nobody knows it’s there? “Nor do men light a lamp and put it under as bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house.  Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16). And I  won’t be the first to point out that those orders (some of them quite new) that wear traditional habits, and put themselves fully in the stream of the Catholic Tradition, are the ones that are growing and attracting new (and young!) members.

    It was a slow week indeed at Principium et Finis; only three posts, and only one of them a new one.  I’m hoping to have more access to the keyboard in the upcoming weeks.  Be that as it may, here’s the rundown from the week past:

I can’t think of anything composed by W. A. Mozart that doesn’t sound magnificent; try this, for example: “Mozart – Credo (Coronation Mass In C Major)” [here]

The next installment of my Throwback Thursday series on the Divine Office for layfolks: “What Is The Liturgy of the Hours? (LOH 2 – Throwback Thursday Edition)” [here]

Speaking of Signs of the Inbreaking of God’s Grace, what sign is greater than the Eucharist? And what better place to kneel in Adoration before our Lord? “Eucharistic Adoration: Sitting At The Feet Of The Master” [here]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Eucharistic Adoration: Sitting At The Feet Of The Master

     As Catholics, we are blessed to have some wonderful devotional practices that help us grow closer to Christ.  One of the most profound of these is Eucharistic Adoration.  My wife and I were recently asked to help encourage participation in Adoration in our parish, in the course of which we ourselves came to see dimensions of this great gift that we hadn’t considered before. 
     For one thing, we both thought immediately of scriptural connections. My lovely bride thought of the passage from First Kings (1 Kings 19:10-13) where the Lord tells the prophet Elijah to stand on the mountain, for “The Lord is about to pass by”.  There’s a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a roaring fire, but God is not in any of those things; instead, Elijah encounters the Lord in a “gentle whispering”. 
     Just as God does not appear to Elijah in any of the grand and dramatic forms we might expect, so Jesus enters the world as a tiny baby, and continues to manifest himself to us as a simple piece of bread.  Eucharistic Adoration gives us a chance to shut out all the storm and stress of our daily lives while we contemplate the infinite God embodied in that piece of bread, and hear his gentle whisper.
     My own first thought was the passage from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) where Jesus is visiting the sisters Martha and Mary.  Martha, who is “worried about many things”, is frantically bustling about the house, while Mary simply sits at the feet of Jesus, watching and listening.  When Martha complains that Mary isn’t helping her, Jesus answers that Mary has chosen “the better part, and it will not be taken away from her”. 
     Most of us can probably identify with Martha: always “worried about many things”, and too distracted to notice the Lord.  Adoration is a great opportunity to give our “inner Martha” a rest and, like Mary, choose “the better part”. After all, what is Eucharistic Adoration, if not watching and listening at the feet of Jesus?
     What’s true for us as individuals also applies to us communally.  However important, even necessary, all of our various activities, committees, and causes may be, they can overshadow “the one thing”, as Jesus tells Martha, “that is needful”.  What better reminder that Christ is the Center than a parish putting aside twelve hours in the middle of the week to sit at the Master’s feet?  It keeps us from becoming nothing but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1).

     My brief comments here can’t even begin to explore the depth of meaning contained in the Eucharist. God who created us knows what we need; having given us both body and soul, he knows we need material means to understand spiritual realities.  The opportunity to kneel in adoration before our Eucharistic Lord is a gift we can’t afford to pass up. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Is The Liturgy of the Hours? (LOH 2 - Throwback Thursday Edition)

  I wrote in a recent post that praying the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office) has had a profound impact on both my prayer life and my spiritual state in general.  I promised to expand upon the Liturgy of the Hours itself, and offer some suggestions on how it might be incorporated into the lives of busy laypeople, in subsequent posts.
     First of all, what is the Liturgy of the Hours?  It traces its origins back to the very earliest days of the Church, and before that to the formal prayer of the Jewish Temple [for more information, see here and here].  It consists mostly of Psalms, canticles and other scriptural readings, said at assigned times (the “Canonical Hours”) in order to “sanctify the day.”  The Hours, along with their traditional and modern names, are:

Matins (Office of Readings) – traditionally during the night, now any time of day
Lauds (Morning Prayer) – sunrise
Terce (Mid-Morning Prayer) – third hour of the day
Sext (Midday Prayer) – sixth hour of the day, i.e., noon
None (Mid-Afternoon Prayer) – ninth hour of the day
Vespers (Evening Prayer) – toward evening
Compline  (Night Prayer) – nightfall, or before retiring

Matins was traditionally said during the night.  Today, as the Office of Readings, it can be prayed at any time of day (in other words, it is no longer necessary to interrupt your sleep).  In addition to three Psalm readings there is also a longer Biblical reading and a non-scriptural reading, either from the writings of the saints, or the lives of the saints, or magisterial documents of the Church.

Lauds and Vespers are the “hinges” of the Divine Office, the most important prayer periods after Readings.  They are longer than the others and include two well-known of the Gospel Canticles: the Benedictus, or Canticle of Zechariah at Morning Prayer (“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel . . .”) and the Magnificat, or Canticle of Mary in the Evening (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . . “). They contain in addition two Psalm readings, a non-Gospel Biblical canticle, antiphons, responsories and the Our Father.

Compline is prayed at the end of the day.  It contains an examination of conscience, but is otherwise shorter than Lauds and Vespers, with only one or two psalms and a short Gospel Canticle, the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon (“Now you let your servant go in peace . . . “).

TerceSext, and None are collectively known as Daytime Prayer.  These are shorter than the other offices, containing only three psalm readings and a short scripture reading.  Since the most recent reforms of the Office they are set up so that even if you pray only one of them a day along with Readings, Lauds, Vespers and Compline, you will have seen the entire Psalter (i.e., Book of Psalms) over the course of a four week cycle.

     Along with the Mass, The Liturgy of the Hours forms the public liturgical prayer of the church.   Clergy and religious, and certain lay persons under vows, are required to say these prayers every day (hence the name Divine Office, from the Latin officium, which means “duty”).  These prayers are not the exclusive preserve of  priests and nuns, however.  Paul VI, in the Apostolic Constitution promulgated in 1970on the Liturgy of the Hours [full text here] says:

The Office has therefore been composed so that it is the prayer not only of the clergy but of the whole of the People of God, and religious and lay people can take part in it, and there are various forms of celebration so that it can be accommodated to the various groups, with their differing needs. Since the Liturgy of the Hours should sanctify the different times of the day, in its revised form it can be fitted into the actual hours of people’s daily lives.

So, while those who pray the Office under obligation are also obliged to follow certain norms in doing so, the Church is inviting the rest of us to pray along with them in a way suited to our state in life and our other responsibilities.  I will offer some suggestions, and reflect on my own experience, in my next post on this topic.

     Below are some resources for anyone interested in exploring the Liturgy of the Hours -
Universalis.com – This was the first website I encountered with the text of the LOH.  It does have the full text of all the daily prayers, although, at least in the free version available online, many of the translations are not the approved ones.  They do say that the translations in the App version are the standard ones.
Ebreviary.com – Full tests of all the prayers, which are designed so that they can be printed as booklets – but you need to buy a subscription. 
Divineoffice.org – My favorite LOH website.  It contains the full approved translations of most of the canonical hours (there is only one hour for Daytime Prayer).  There are also audio versions of each hour which include recorded hymns and recitation of the prayers, either spoken or chanted.

There are various one-volume books entitled Christian Prayer that contain most of the Liturgy of the Hours.  The best choice available is this one [here], although it is not complete (particularly the Office of  Readings), and hasn’t been updated since 1976.  I prefer this one [here] from the Daughters of St. Paul, which contains everything except the long readings from the Office of Readings (which are available from the websites above).  It also dates from 1976, however, and, even worse, seems to be out of print.

The Gold Standard is the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours [here].  It’s all there, but it’s gonna cost you.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (13 July 2014)

Salvete omnes commilitiones Christi! Welcome to another “Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival”.  Sunday Snippets is a weekly convocation of Catholic bloggers in which we share our posts from the past week.  The main site is at This That and the Other Thing [here], hosted by the ever gracious RAnn.

Without God's Grace, all our efforts are fruitless

      It was a slow week at Principium et Finis, where lingering commitments from the academic year and various other complications left less time for bloggery.  Nonetheless, we did manage to squeeze out a few things: something old, something new, something . . . well, a couple other things too.
     It seems to be the case that every week I disclaim any intentional “theme” for the week, and yet there seems to be one.  Why should this week be any exception?  The theme here is the same one expressed by St. Paul when he said:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)


. . .it is no longer I who live. But Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It sounds simple enough to turn from self and conform ourselves to Christ, but putting it into practice is very difficult for most of us.  That’s what many of our Christian friends outside the Catholic (and Orthodox) orbit don’t understand: the purpose of all the “stuff”, sacraments, liturgical prayer, magisterial teaching, even Scripture itself, is that they are all material means to help us turn from our natural proclivity to make “man" (which is to say, ourselves) "the measure of all things”, and instead aim at living our lives according to God’s standard.  That was our common thread this past week.

Monday – The best Sacred Music brings us out of ourselves and our ordinary lives and lifts us up toward Heaven; this piece by the Pride of Venice, Antonio Vivaldi, is a sterling example: “Cum Sancto Spiritu From Gloria By Vivaldi” [here]

Wednesday -  Psalm 127 reminds us (and I, for one, need a lot of reminding) that all of our efforts are fruitless without God’s Grace: “Psalm 127: A Gift and Blessing From the Lord” [here]

Thursday – This week I started re-running my series on the Liturgy of the Hours as a prayer for laypeople. In private prayer we often find ourselves asking God to listen to our concerns; the LOH requires that we Listen to the voice of The Lord: “Sanctify Your Day: The Liturgy of the Hours (Throwback Thursday Edition)” [here]

Friday – While conscience is inside the heart and mind of each of us individually, its purpose is not to conform the Moral Law to our preferences (as many people would have us believe), but to conform our preferences to the Moral Law, as the Angelic Doctor explains with his usual clarity: “Does St. Thomas Give Assent To Dissent?” [here]

Finally, the question of the week was whether we had any stories about nuns.  I do not have any specific stories today, but I do have many memories from my time spent in several Catholic schools in the sixties and seventies.  I have always been bemused by the old stereotype of the mean, knuckle-cracking nun, because the nuns I knew, although not without human failings, were on the whole loving, nurturing women who worked hard to help the children under their care.  I recall them with nothing but fondness and gratitude.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Does St.Thomas Give Assent To Dissent?

     St. Thomas Aquinas, greatest of Catholic theologians, has been the target of a sort of “hostile takeover.” Certain people are invoking his authority in order to justify ignoring Catholic moral doctrine, claiming that, according to St. Thomas, it’s wrong not to follow your conscience, even if it’s in error; therefore, if their conscience tells them to use contraceptives, or support pro- abortion politicians, or vote in favor of redefining marriage they would actually be sinning if they obeyed the Church!  Don’t blame them: Thomas Aquinas made them do it.  What else could they do?
     On the one hand, St. Thomas does actually say what the dissenters claim he says, but on the other, he actually means the opposite of what they say he means.  Here is the relevant passage from his Summa Theologiae  [ST hereafter: italics mine here and below]:

. . .  conscience is nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action. Now knowledge is in the reason. Therefore when the will is at variance with erring reason, it is against conscience. But every such will is evil; for it is written (Romans 14:23): "All that is not of faith"--i.e. all that is against conscience--"is sin." 
Therefore the will is evil when it is at variance with erring reason.  ST IiaIae  

Yes, it is “evil” to disobey even an erroneous conscience, but conscience does not mean “feelings” or “opinions” (the common misrepresentation); rather, it is “the application of knowledge to some action”.  To St. Thomas (and to the Church) it is the process of applying moral principles to one’s particular situation, or “knowledge applied to an individual case”, as he describes it in another section (ST I, 79, 13).  Since conscience is the reasoning process by which we determine whether a course of action is good or evil, going against conscience means deliberately choosing what we believe to be evil, even if we do not actually accomplish evil:  

But when erring reason proposes something as being commanded by God, then to scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of GodST IiaIae   

When we violate our conscience, then, quite apart from the actual harm we might or might not be doing (objective sin), we are intentionally rejecting what we believe to be God’s will (subjective sin): that’s why it’s "evil" to violate our conscience. This act of defiance is a sin in itself, quite apart from the sinfulness (or not) of the particular act we are contemplating.      
The story doesn’t end there, of course; St. Thomas was well aware that someone might try to use his argument to justify sin. He goes on to explain that, even though we must obey an erroneous conscience, we may be morally culpable (i.e., guilty of sin) for having an erroneous conscience.  He says: 

If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil. ST IiaIae  

Recall that conscience is moral principles (what he calls “knowledge” or “Divine Law”) applied to particular circumstances.   For an adult Christian “what one ought to know” are the moral principles contained in Church teaching, although it is quite possible to be mistaken or misinformed, through no fault of one’s own (invincible ignorance), about the circumstances to which one is applying the principles. Therefore, invincible ignorance excuses us from subjective guilt, but failure to form our conscience properly does not.   Just to be sure his point is clear, St. Thomas illustrates with the following examples:    

For instance, if erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man's wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know. But if a man's reason, errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right [i.e., sexual intercourse] when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance , which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary. ST IiaIae

Notice the phrase “bound to know”: whether or not adultery is wrong is not a matter of conscience, its wrongness is an unalterable reality that we are “bound” to acknowledge.
St. Thomas did NOT make her do it

       The champions of conscience (or perhaps more properly “conscience”) over and against Catholic moral doctrine almost without exception invoke St. Thomas (when they invoke him) to justify their rejection of the Church’s teaching on one of the currently fashionable sexual issues, such as contraception, gay marriage, extra-marital sex, etc., practices that have been explicitly and unambiguously condemned in scripture and in the teaching of the Church under the sixth commandment’s prohibition of adultery.  If we look at the whole passage, however, and not just the one sentence that seems to excuse dissent, we see that St. Thomas is saying explicitly that you cannot invoke conscience against these teachings. Using adultery as his example, he demonstrates that the role of conscience is not to determine basic rules of right and wrong, but to guide our own actions according to the rules we have received from God through his Church.
      It would be helpful at this point to recall that sin involves a lot more than just the will of the sinner. The Church teaches that there must be three conditions for a sin to be a mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent or, more prosaically, "it's bad, you know darn well it's bad, but you go ahead and do it anyway".  St. Thomas is here considering only the second part of the formulation, that is, whether or not you know darn well it's bad.   Even if, through no fault of your own (a significant "if", as we saw above) you don't know it's bad, and so are not guilty of choosing bad, it's still bad.  And it's bad because bad consequences, for you and/or society at large, are likely to follow.  That's why it's a sin, after all. Consider St. Thomas's example of the unwitting adulterer.  He is not guilty of subjective sin, because he is not aware of what he is doing.  The act is nevertheless an objective sin, which could lead to all manner of destructive consequences: fathering a child out of wedlock (with all the attendant problems), or receiving a disease which might in turn infect his innocent wife; the other woman might receive an infection from him, and, depending on her awareness of the situation, might feel exploited or betrayed by him.  If the adultery becomes known, as is likely, it will damage the man's relationship with his wife and children; if not, he may feel the need to cover up his deed and commit the further sin of lying in order protect his family . . .  And on and on.  
   In other words, a sin is a sin is a sin, and whatever we may think, it's still a sin.  As Catholics, we have ample means of knowing the Moral Law, and therefore have no excuse for disobeying it.  St. Thomas writes nothing that justifies committing acts which the Church teaches to be morally wrong.

(The above is a revised and condensed version of an earlier series of five posts titled "Thomas Aquinas Said What?")

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sanctify Your Day: The Liturgy of the Hours (LOH 1 - Throwback Thursday Edition)

     There was a time in my life when I was immersed in secularism.  I began to recover in my late twenties, a process given a sudden and decisive boost by a powerful conversion experience in my thirtieth year, as I have related in other posts [herehere].  That was the start of an amazing adventure.  In the first flush of rediscovered faith I experienced an unexpected  joy in prayer, and many problems that had seemed insurmountable before were now, surprisingly, manageable. 
We can't all pray like monks . . .
      I have heard this honeymoon period after a conversion, or reversion, referred to as the “Pink Cloud” phase.  The Catholic tradition wisely tells us that conversion is a process and the pink cloud, like the infatuation at the beginning of a relationship, sooner or later (sooner, usually) dissipates, leaving the long and often hard road that is the only way to true love. 
     So it was for me.  Eight years down the road my wife and I had moved to another state (twice) and had several small children.  Life was good, but my spiritual life was stuck.  I needed something more, but I didn’t know what.  It happened that we were visiting in the state where that first profound reversion experience had taken place, and as I was driving past the church where I had been moved so profoundly years before the bells began to chime (literally).  The clock on the dashboard said 6 o’clock.  “Vespers”, I thought to myself, and then it struck me: I could pray the Divine Office.  In fact, it almost seemed as though I was being told I should pray the Divine Office.
     I was excited about the possibility, but had no idea how to go about it.  I had a very vague understanding of the Divine Office: I knew that it was a series of formal prayers said at certain times every day, and I knew the names of some of those prayer times (Matins, Lauds, Vespers), but that was it.  As soon as our car ride was over I looked up “Divine Office” in the encyclopedia (my mother-in-law did not have internet access) and started piecing it together.  I learned that the Divine Office (now called the Liturgy of the Hours) goes back to the very earliest days of the Church, and is built around the praying of the Psalms and certain Canticles (poems or songs) from other parts of the Bible.  The Magnificat, for instance, which is the prayer Mary says when she meets her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55), is always part of Vespers (i.e., Evening Prayer).
     I did not at first feel ready to pray the actual Liturgy of the Hours (I didn’t even know where to find the prayers), so at first I just made a point of praying some time close to the canonical hours.  Soon, however, I started to find resources online, and eventually bought a fairly inexpensive prayer book.  The Divine Office changed everything: not only did I have a much fuller prayer life, but I found that it really did “sanctify time”, as they say.  I felt closer to Christ and his Church, and I became much more familiar with Sacred Scripture in the process.  I also found that some ingrained patterns of sin which 
. . . family life can be busy
had withstood my earlier experience became more tractable.  It was, in fact, another conversion.
     I do need to point out that I have never been able to pray like a monk: I have a wife and children and need to work extra jobs to keep them all clothed and fed.   Priests and religious, and certain lay people under vows, are required to pray the Divine Office in a certain way; the rest of us can adapt it to our situation.  I am planning a series of posts discussing various aspects of the Liturgy of the Hours, including how busy lay people can incorporate the Divine Office into their regular prayer life, available resources, the history of the Divine office, and my reflections on some of the particular hours.

     In the meanwhile, I encourage you to click on the logo below and visit divineoffice.org, one of the best online resources available.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Psalm 127: A Gift and Blessing From the Lord

     One of the many benefits of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is that we become very familiar with the Psalms, which comprise the core of the Liturgy.  These ancient hymns of the Jewish Temple address many different aspects of our relationship with God: some are songs of  praise, others speak of our fears, or of God’s mercy, or thank him for his protection from our enemies.
     One Psalm that has always resonated with me is Psalm 127 (I also discuss it more briefly in my post on Daytime Prayer, here, and it provides the title for a recent post on poverty, here).  It is fairly short (four stanzas), but beautifully reminds us of our dependence on God and his providential care.  The psalm opens with the image of house construction: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor”.  The psalmist then presents a series of images illustrating how useless our efforts are without God’s help:

If the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain does the watchman keep vigil. 
In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat, when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. 

What an eloquent reminder that it is only through Grace that our efforts bear fruit!
     The focus shifts in the last half of Psalm 127:instead of building a house, here we are building our “house”, that is, our family, again only through the Grace of God: “Truly sons are a gift from the Lord, a blessing, the fruit of the womb”.  Here, too, God is the real author; and our children are Providence in tangible form: both gift and blessing, which is to say their source is God, and that’s a good thing. And not just good in some spiritual sense: 

Indeed the sons of youth are like arrows in the hand of a warrior. 
O the happiness of the man who has filled his quiver with these arrows! He will have no cause for shame when he disputes with his foes in the gateways.

You can’t ask for images more down-to-earth than these: are sons a like weapons, they’ll back us up when we face our enemies, and all through the generosity of the Lord.
     It will come as no surprise that the idea of our progeny as gift and blessing is not as common as it once was.  Thirty-five years ago, in his introduction to Pope John Paul I’s Illustrissimi, John Cardinal Wright wrote:

     The present almost pathological lack of joy shows up in every vocation and in every area of life.  There already exist among us people who rejoice as little in the coming of children as once used to do only some of our neo-pagan neighbors.  Among descendents of people who, only yesterday, of the coming of a baby as a “blessed event,” maternity  is no longer thought joyful. 

That train has gone much further down the track since 1979, so that now even the President of the United States can speak of a young women being “punished with a baby”. 

     We need to speak out, of course, against this anti-child attitude, the anti-family ethos and what Pope John Paul II called the Culture of Death.  I regularly do so in this space.  But we also need to remember, as Cardinal Wright points out, that our message is at root a message of Joy. Our children, and children in general (sadly, not all who wish it have their quivers filled in this way) are “a gift from the Lord, a blessing, the fruit of the womb”.  We need to say it often, and live it publicly, and always gives thanks to God for building up our house.