All posts tagged: sin

A Knight in St. Patrick’s Purgatory

Each year St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent and the question arises how should we observe his feast during the penitential season? If it falls on a Friday will there be special dispensations for corned beef? If you give up alcohol for Lent can you celebrate with a glass of whiskey on March 17th? St. Patrick’s Day festivities are a welcome break in the somber 40 days, but there is actually a connection between the popular saint and taking on surprisingly severe penance. In a medieval tale, a young knight named Owen journeys into a portal to the Otherworld to voluntarily take on an extreme penance to cleanse him of the sin of cruelty. The place of purgation he enters is called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and the island of Lough Derg connected to the legend draws pilgrims even today. The first Old French version of the tale, the Espurgatoire seint Patriz (c. 1190) was penned by a 12th century authoress who calls herself Marie. Marie wrote popular stories of love and chivalry, fables, and possibly …

The Solemn Joy of Lent

T he beginning of a new liturgical season calls for a new Spotify playlist: 40 Songs for the 40 Days of Lent. Curating this list has presented a unique challenge: there is a lot of really beautiful music out there that would lead one deeper into Lent, but much of it is very somber. Taken in context, this is not a bad thing; it is certainly appropriate for music to reflect the penitential austerity of the season, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to listen to an entire playlist of funereal minor music. Lent, after all, is not a season without its joys, and these are not simply restricted to Laetare Sunday. Even in the midst of our penitential practices, each Sunday we still witness with growing anticipation the dismissal of the catechumens and candidates for full communion, knowing that it will not be long before they will gather alongside us around the Eucharistic table. Even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, we rejoice as we hear the Gospels: we marvel in awe at …

Confronting a Sinful Church

“For our good and the good of all his holy Church.”[1] Even seven years after the new translation of the Roman Missal, I will occasionally stumble over this response if I am not concentrating. However, over the past months as the disturbing reports about now-laicized Cardinal McCarrick and the horrific details from the Pennsylvania grand jury report have come to light, the word “holy” has sometimes stuck in my throat at Mass—not because I am lacking sufficient attention but for precisely the opposite reason. In the wake of this ongoing scandal, I heard from longtime Catholic friends who feel misled, angry, and/or betrayed. One friend, so disturbed by the sordid tales of systematic abuse and cover-up by Pennsylvania clergy released last August, as well as her by own parish’s inability to respond, quietly left her pew in the middle of Mass for the door. As Catholics struggle to move forward by supporting victims, pressing for meaningful reforms, and trying to hold together a faith under siege by corruption, our liturgy functions as a double-edged sword. …

The Wayward Daughters

“All my days I have longed equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path,” confesses Kristin Lavransdatter, a wealthy Norwegian noblewoman and titular character of Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset’s three-part novel.[1] Set in the fourteenth century, the saga follows the life of Kristin, one of the most complex female characters of 20th century literature, from womb to tomb. She wrestles with the weight of sin, her refusal to reconcile her will with God’s, and the suffering that accompanies her wayward decisions. In Brideshead Revisited, British novelist Evelyn Waugh brings another multi-layered female character to life: Lady Julia Flyte, a wealthy heiress living decadently in 20th century England. Each woman is raised in a devout Catholic home and yet is caught between her own passions and her love for God. Separated not only by geography and several centuries, Kristin and Julia’s lives are very different. Kristin is a mother of many and she lives to become a grandmother. Julia is childless. But Kristin Lavransdatter and Brideshead Revisited share the same themes …

The Roman Church as Casta Meretrix

You (=Jerusalem) committed fornication because of your renown, and you lavished your fornication on every passer-by. —Ezekiel 16:15 We should realize that everything said about Jerusalem applies to . . . the Church. —Origen, Homilies on Ezekiel Origen is speaking of the members of the church. . . The more “ecclesiastical” they are, the more he has them in mind. Above all, he is thinking of those who are the Church’s official leaders and preachers. He spares them as little as the prophet spares the whore Jerusalem. —Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Casta Meretrix” As the current wave of the clerical abuse crisis began to rush over us, I could not help but think of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay “Casta Meretrix [The Chaste Whore].” He opens that essay with Luther’s fiery denunciation of the Roman Church as the whore of Babylon. But then, in a surprising turn, he shows that such an identification preceded Luther by over a millennium. For nearly a hundred pages, he lays out text after text from dozens upon dozens of …

Guidelines for Any Appropriate Response to the Catholic Abuse Crisis

A Memory and a Hope: The Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 2018. I went to the 5:30 pm Mass at our parish. It was just this day that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation was made public. I felt overcome by a tide of sadness, a very deep sadness in which I could not seem to touch bottom. It was as though all the beautiful things in the world that I had cherished had been tarnished and blasted with corruption and swept away by chaos, scandal, and embarrassment. At the very same time I had the most vivid impression of the beauty of the Feast we were celebrating, here towards summer’s end, contemplating Mary as the Eschatological Icon of the Church. This is as intimate and hopeful and ennobling Truth as any there are. I felt an equal tide of gratitude welling up within me just as deep and maybe even deeper than the sadness I was feeling. This was instead a tide of gratitude for the Church who, for all these centuries, had faithfully …

Ora et Labora: Christians Don’t Need Leisure

We Christians, no less than other human creatures, are interested in ourselves. Deformed versions of this interest are narcissistic: under that rubric, we think of ourselves as if we were intrinsically valuable and important and good, and then we forget that whatever value, importance, and goodness we have has been given to us by the triune LORD whom we worship. That gift denies us anything of our own. Less deformed versions of our concern with ourselves begin and end with the thought that we are creatures, brought into being out of nothing by our LORD for purposes scarcely apparent to us. Thinking about ourselves in this way has the double good of requiring us to think about our LORD, and of deflating our pretensions. It is not easy to think like that, however; narcissism was not abolished by Jesus, even if its eventual overcoming is assured, and a good deal of Christian theological anthropology, professional-hectoring and popular-sentimental both, shows narcissism’s deleterious effects. We Christians remain disposed to concern about how the world seems to us …

The Alarm of War

“In that day, says the LORD, courage shall fail both king and princes; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you’; whereas the sword has reached their very life.” My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster follows hard on disaster, the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are destroyed, my curtains in a moment. How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet? “For my people are foolish, they know me not; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but how to do good they know not.” I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I …

Active Love Is a Harsh and Fearful Thing

In the second grade, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied with what I saw as the two most appealing occupations—I would either become a veterinarian or a saint. While many Catholic parents’ eyes might begin to brim with tears at such a declaration, my knowing mother asked a prescient follow-up question. Do you know that you have to die before being canonized a saint? With the swift and definitive logic of an eight-year old, I promptly concluded that sainthood was not the professional trajectory for me. I set my sights instead on a future concerned with animal health. The subsequent parental encouragement that everyone was called to sainthood over their lifetime, no matter their job, did not sway my decision. If I could not get the credit for being a saint, what was the point? This story makes great Catholic cocktail party fodder. Everyone smiles and chuckles at my former precociousness. I feel great satisfaction in having a good anecdote in my back pocket for just …

The Church Has a Morbid Streak

I was in my mid-twenties when my father handed me his 1929 edition of Sigrid Undset’s Nobel Prize-winning trilogy, Kristen Lavransdatter, and said, “I think you’ll really like this.” This is typically how my dad makes his book recommendations. He puts a story in your hands and says, “I think you’ll really like this.” It took a few years and a couple of starts and stops to get through this massive historical novel set in medieval Catholic Norway. The tome sat at the bottom of a stack for while, but in the end, I fell in love with Kristin Lavransdatter, which I have often described as not unlike Augustine’s Confessions if the Confessions were written in third person feminine voice and set in medieval Scandinavia. Sigrid Undset became one of my favorite authors because her writing reveals that rare perception of the pain and beauty of St. Paul’s words in the Letter to the Romans: “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.” Without affect, sentimentality, or illusion her writing expresses the realities of the …