The concept of kingship, considered throughout history and in multiple cultural contexts, varies quite a bit. Contemporary Americans tend to equate kings with tyrannical figures wielding huge amounts of arbitrary governmental power, whether it be the power of taxation exercised unhappily by George III at the expense of the Colonies, or the power of complete policy control as brandished by the Sun King, Louis XIV (“I am the state,” “L’état, c’est moi,” was his memorable way of expressing it).
Articles tagged with sacrifice
I decided to take up this topic once again because of three separate instances in the past week or so. The first one directly involves me. I was preparing to go to the sacrament of confession. During my examination of conscience, I came upon an old, all-too-familiar sin. I’m tired of battling against it, occasionally discouraged by my inability to make much apparent progress. But what happened next was interesting. I noticed that there was a very subtle stirring inside that suggested to me that what I needed to do was feel worse about this sin. And feeling really, really sorry, really upset with myself…well, I suppose the idea is that my behavior will magically change if I change my feelings.
Well, it doesn’t actually work for me. Does it work for you?
Once you start thinking about this meme, you find it all over. We try to convince each other of our sincerity (especially when we let each other down) by furrowing our brow, biting our lip, getting bleary-eyed. The template for this in my world will always be President Clinton. This is not a criticism of the ex-President. When he felt our pain and acknowledged “not feeling contrite enough,” he was doing what a leader should do–in an emotivist world. Media figures and fellow politicians wanted to make sure that he felt bad, and he needed to make sure that we knew that he felt bad. And it’s become something of a public ritual ever since. When a celebrity (Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Paula Deen) messes up, he or she is expected to go on camera and exhibit signs of sorrow.
What other route might there be? Keep in mind that contrition is a condition of absolution in the sacrament of penance. So there is nothing wrong with the feeling itself. It can be a sign of a healthy conscience. The difficulty is that these feelings may or may not actually have an effect on future behavior. If you’ve ever dealt with (or are an) an alcoholic, you know this. Caught lying, the addict may well feel completely miserable and sorry. But the lure of alcohol and drugs typically overrides the feelings eventually. So generating correct feelings is insufficient for changing behavior.
What I recommend instead is truth and preparation. By truth, I mean what twelve-step programs mean by steps four and five: making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and stating the exact nature of our wrongs. By preparation, I mean that we learn what situations trigger our disobedience, and make a decision to act contrary to our inclinations when temptation presents itself.
Let me give another concrete example of emotivism.
A common complaint about liturgy is that those attending “don’t get anything out of it.” This sort of rhetoric tempts pastors to make the liturgy more interesting, to see it as a service that they provide to consumers whose desires need to be accounted for. And what are the consumers hoping “to get out of” the liturgy? I can’t say for certain in every instance, but I can speak from my own youthful experience. I thought that church ought to make me feel better about myself, others and the world, that it should inspire me to be a better person. I should walk away from the liturgy with different feelings. This is how many of us gauge the effectiveness of many, if not most, public and private encounters. Success means feeling good, and feeling crummy means that we are doing something wrong.
But does it? This is a highly questionable idea.
When I was studying to be a professional musician, I typically practiced three or four hours at the piano every day by myself. I did not enjoy this for the most part. Wynton Marsalis likes to refer to practice as The Monster. Every day, musicians have to get out of bed and confront the monster and slay it. The payoff comes when, after years of slaying monsters, one plays the trumpet like Wynton Marsalis or sings like Renee Fleming. In the meantime, though, one must act contrary to one’s feelings, rather than taking feelings as any kind of objective measure of one’s moral state.
Similarly, in a marriage, when a spouse becomes debilitatingly ill or a child develops a major behavioral issue, dealing with this situation will often require mastering one’s immediate feelings of disgust at sickness, resentment at having to set aside personal goals, and fear that things may spiral out of control. These feelings must be opposed because to give in to them would be to act wrongly, to fail in one’s duties and responsibilities to others. Nursing an ailing loved one can be exhausting, no fun at all. But it is beautiful. When we witness this kind of sacrifice, we recognize it as true and good as well. But to accomplish this sacrifice, we must be prepared to act contrary to our feelings, rather than having our feelings somehow demand of others some kind of compliance (as is the case when we want to “get something out of the liturgy”).
These kinds of routine decisions to act in accord with the truth, with the demands of beauty and goodness, change us into different persons. Our identities become completely wrapped up in the repeated good action, and we become virtuoso trumpeters or faithful spouses, beloved brothers. We have become virtuous, having the ability (Latin: virtus) to choose the truly good, the truly beautiful even when others can’t see it. Here’s the hitch. As we are changing, we are likely at times, perhaps often, to feel “inauthentic.” That is to say, we will miss our old selves. What it’s actually like to be a virtuoso or a faithful spouse is at first an unfamiliar experience and requires us to act in ways that feel insincere.
In an emotivist world, the great sins are inauthenticity and insincerity, the great virtues sincerity and authenticity. Thus, it is difficult for an emotivist to make any headway in any kind of human excellence. Let me end with a quote from Lionel Trilling on what this might mean [emphasis added]:
“At the behest of the criterion of authenticity, much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification. Conversely, much that culture traditionally condemned and sought to exclude is accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example, disorder, violence, unreason.”
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends…
Christ worked many wonders during His earthly life, demonstrating a great compassion and tender-heartedness for the poor, the grieving, the sick and neglected. These were signs of God’s love for humankind, to the very least of the Lord’s sisters and brothers.
Yet on our Lord’s own words, the greatest act of His love was not any of His acts of teaching, healing, or even raising from the dead. Rather, all of these signs of love point to His supreme act of love, laying down His life for His sheep. There is no greater love than this act of self-abandonment. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life [John 10: 17].”
The liturgy of the Church, according to Sacrosanctum concilium (the constitution on the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council), is an exercise of Christ’s high priesthood. That is to say, it is a re-presentation of this supreme act of love. We who are His Body, enter into this act of self-offering to the Father for the sake of the world when we enter into the liturgy. Here is a quote from paragraph 7:
Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree. [emphasis added]
This superlative construction parallels our Lord’s own words that the greatest love consists in the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends. Can it be that our celebration of the liturgy is this action, is this love?
Answering that question depends on active participation. I don’t mean this in the sense in which it is frequently taken, that everyone at the liturgy needs to be speaking, gesturing, helping at the altar, and so on. The Actor is Jesus Himself, not us; we are strictly participants, and we participate–take part–in our “spiritual worship [Romans 12: 1]” when we see, with spiritual eyes, what is actually taking place at the liturgy and its implications for how our lives must change, that we become the sorts of persons who show compassion for the poor, the grieving, the sick and the neglected.
That is to say, in the liturgy “we live Christ,” we are conformed to Christ and become His crucified and resurrected Body. The acts of service that flow from becoming Christ are always a function of being sent, being Apostles who have witnessed the Lord’s sacrifice and resurrected Presence, and wish to point others to this same reality. Just as our Lord’s earthly ministry is meant to help us understand the meaning of His sacrifice on the Cross and point to it, but cannot replace it, our loving service of others must flow from our encounter with Christ at the Cross (meaning at the liturgy), and must be a sign to others to come to believe in the saving power of God in Jesus Christ. Our loving service should draw others to the liturgy (e.g. first of all baptism). This is what the Church means when she says that the Eucharist (the central act and meaning of all of the liturgy) is the “source and summit of the Christian life [CCC § 1324; “fount and apex” as Lumen gentium 11 puts it].”
It remains for us to broaden and deepen our understanding of the liturgy. I have been reflecting mostly on the deepening part over the past several weeks. What do I mean by broadening? I will answer this question in the next post, God willing.
Until this past November, I had served my entire monastic life under one bishop. We Chicagoans have been blessed with unusual stability in our leadership. The careers of Cody, Bernadin and George spanned the half century since the closing of Vatican II, and their three careers, in some ways, illustrate how the Church has gradually come to grips with the challenges issued by the Council Fathers.
Cardinal George won me over when, in his first interview with the Chicago press, he said (I paraphrase), “The faith isn’t liberal or conservative, it’s true.” And he continued to generate a wealth of penetrating insights throughout his time as Archbishop. He may best be remembered for his ‘martyrdom’ quote:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
Behind the many bon mots was someone who did not set out to be a wordsmith or copy writer. I had the pleasure of spending time with him in various contexts, usually big meetings, but occasionally just visiting, catching up on things, discussing the needs of the Church and especially religious life (it is often forgotten that he was a religious). Cardinal George was a man of deep faith, and this faith informed all of his thinking and gave it a marvelous consistency, a thoroughness that was quite rare. His sayings had solidity because they were deeply rooted in the conviction that the Faith is True. There were few ‘loose ends’ to the weave of his wide ranging thoughts. His homilies were frequently short, diving directly into the heart of the matter, connecting the gospel and current events. At the annual Archdiocesan meetings with religious leadership, he always set aside the last ninety minutes for a free-form question and answer period. He was not afraid of tough questions and in this forum at least, he never gave the ‘political’ answer (he learned from hard experience that this dodginess was unfortunately needed when dealing with a hostile media). He was amazingly well informed and prepared. Almost no questions took him by surprise. There was again no fear or defensiveness in this preparation: he paid attention to developments at all levels of the Church because he cared about her members.
This is the aspect of his life that will almost certainly arise in the media coverage and the reminiscences that we will be able to read in the coming days. He was a genuine pastor, who laid down his life for his sheep in imitation of the Lord Whom he served. He made a point of reaching out to our community when we went through some difficult times. He agreed to celebrate Mass here when I was installed as Prior three years ago, and he gave a fantastic homily in which he used the readings and the Rule of Saint Benedict to connect the monastic life and evangelization (when did he have time to read through the Rule in preparation?). One of my favorite memories of him came about quite accidentally. We happened to be in an elevator together leaving some kind of fund raising event. Thinking like the introvert that I am, I asked him if he ever got worn down by having to visit with big groups of people. “No,” he said thoughtfully, “I love being with the people. It’s the two hours of paperwork I have to finish before going to bed that tires me out.” This was at about ten at night.
Time and again, though, I saw the truth in his claim that he loved to be with the people. This was especially impressive because standing for long periods of time could be painful for him, and one rarely saw evidence of this as he smiled and asked questions. He frequently made a point of thanking others for their service to the Church, however humble that service might appear. And he was genuine in this gratitude.
A final part of his legacy that has received a bit more attention of late is his love of the liturgy, and the steps he took to make sure that the style of celebration was congruent with the realities celebrated. In this, our community felt very close to him. Our founders spent several years in the missions, during which time they recognized the necessity of a well-celebrated liturgy to the goal of evangelization. Had he had a similar experience in his years as a missionary? However it came about, one of his first big decisions upon arriving back in Chicago was to found the Liturgical Institute. He was also instrumental in seeing through the new English translation of the Roman Missal. He was criticized for making his preferences known to individual priests, but this is part of the job description of a bishop–he is the high priest of the diocese, and the presbyters are merely his assistants, authorized to celebrate the sacraments in his absence. His own presidential style was consistent with his character: reverent, understated, but confident. This confidence derived not from his famous intellectual gifts, but from the conviction that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that He loved us and gave His life for us, and continues to transform our lives and be with us through the sacraments.
May our God be praised for the gift of the Cardinal’s time with us, for his many sacrifices on our behalf, and for always raising up shepherds for His Church! And may our departed shepherd enter into the joy of his loving Master.