Past Imperfect, Future Perfect

A Grammar Lesson?? 

As a kid, I was one of those weird ones who loved grammar.

Yes, I know. What does this have to do with the Ascension? Bear with me. 

This week we celebrate the Ascension, a major feast that offers an opportunity to review the past of Christ’s life, and the future of our life with him in the Father’s dwelling place. It is precisely those words expressing TIME that led me to today’s meditation.

When I studied (and later taught) Latin, I was introduced to verb tenses different from those  in our own English language. In Latin, something wasn’t simply past: it could be past imperfect, which meant that it continued over a period of time. On the other hand, past perfect expressed an action that was completely over and done with. For example,  “I was writing (imperfect) this post, when my pencil broke (perfect).”

[You’ll be relieved that I don’t plan to get into the more complex verb forms, such as pluperfect, future perfect and the subjunctive.]

Yes, we grammarians are weird, but as with everything in life, there’s a spiritual lesson to be discovered here. “In grammar??” you say, incredulously. Yes, even in grammar. After all, the Catechism tells us that “God is everywhere.” St. Ignatius teaches us to find God in all things, and Thérèse of Lisieux Open Bookclaimed that everything is a grace. Let me explain.

All of us live in the past imperfect tense, that is, in a state of continuous imperfection. Our past has not only continued to accumulate events every second and every hour of every day, but our handling of these events are more often than not glaringly imperfect, in the sense of flawed. It is these past imperfect/flawed events that weigh us down with negative feelings such as regret, guilt, self-recrimination, and blame. It is for this past that Christ’s forgiveness and the Sacrament of Reconciliation have been given to us. Dwelling on the imperfect moments of our past squanders both our physical and spiritual energy, and deprives us of the peace that Christ offers us.

Though ascended into heaven, Christ is still present with and in us. In Christ and in Christ alone, is the future truly perfect, since he has gone to prepare a place for us in his Father’s heavenly dwelling, so that where he is, we also shall be. This is our future perfect, our perfect future.

Where, then, will our imperfect past have gone? It has now become Past Perfect, for in the merciful mind of God it is not only past and forgiven; it is totally forgotten.

May we all one day ascend with Christ to our perfect, timeless eternity.

Friends to the Rescue

They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered around him, he got up and entered the city.
(Acts 14)

Time and again, Scripture lets us know the value of friends, as in this passage from our readings today, May 16.

In a Gospel scene, Jesus is teaching in a crowded room, leaving no space for a paralytic to enter. Undeterred, his friends carry him up to the roof, remove some tiles and lower the paralytic into the room. “Seeing their faith,” Jesus cures the man.

Not long after my bout with pneumonia, I was describing to one of the Brothers how, in my delirium, I was unable to pray or even to mention the name of God. “That’s why, ” said Brother Gabriel, “we need to pray for our sick friends.” I wonder how many friends (and family) were praying for me at that time.

Friendship grows freely between persons who love each other and are concerned for the other’s well-being. There is no sense of obligation; the Love between friends is totally gratuitous.

Friendship is similar to spousal love in that it is ready to take on the burden of the other “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.” Friends cherish the same things, spurn the same things. They rarely disagree but when they do, they are careful not to belittle the other’s opinion.

friendlyFriends may be very different from each other. Still, they are enough alike in their thinking and values that they easily fall into a rhythm of togetherness marked by acceptance, spontaneity, and frequently delightful surprises. They love each other in the style that best suits the other. They never run out of conversation, as they share their thoughts from the most trivial to the deepest secrets of their soul. They are confident that secrets will be closely guarded, and never fear that they will shock the other, but will be held in respect and without judgment.

Blessed are the friends who are drawn to love each other through their shared love of the source of all Love. Here they reach the summit of human love and bask in the love of the One who called his followers “friends.”

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my father. (John 15:13-15)

Proof of Faith

During this season when the Acts of the Apostles are read, we’re led to think about the early Church, its formation and growth. (Believe it or not, I used to think that these readings were boring! That tells us how God helps us grow.)

It was not only during the Apostolic period that the Church was faced with problems. What becomes clear is that there were many different “beliefs” plus challenges to those beliefs that cropped up from one era to another. This post is dedicated to brevity, so even if I knew them I can’t list the many heresies that invited constant clarification, correction and defense. Certainly, the most basic attack on faith today is atheism which still thrives and still gives rise to some form of apologetics. Next threatened is dedication to  mainstream religious practices that promote and require belief in what seems to be unbelievable.

Arguments over doctrines throughout the ages have led to un-Christian extremes of wars, bloodshed and martyrdom. This in turn leads to the disintegration of the religion that promotes such beliefs.

The problem is that we humans want evidence and certitude; logic and reasonableness. And the fact is, faith seems to elude these standards.

We don’t have a problem agreeing with the doctrine that says we’ve been made in the image and likeness of God, probably because it lifts us above the mud of our nature. However, our God-likeness gives us a mind, and the mind will simply not stop asking questions and looking for solid evidence. Even when God came to us as a touchable human being, we still wanted more. “Only show us the Father; that will be enough for us!” Phillip asks Jesus. “Give us a sign!” was the constant demand from people who had already seen many signs and who really didn’t want a sign because then they’d be forced to accept Jesus as the Christ.

Over the centuries, various proofs for the existence of God have been offered as absolute. (And heaven help you if your god is different from my god!) But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

Just what is this faith that Jesus hoped would fill the earth?

I think it’s safe to say that Christ wants us to believe in him — rely on him — enough to follow what he taught: a way of living that would actually imitate God; a way of treating one another as God treats us, forgiving us and making his sun to rise on the just and the unjust. This is how we become the “image and likeness” of God our Father. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. We don’t start out that way; that’s how we hope to finish.

A wonderful insight as to to what constitutes proof of the existence of God is to be found in the May 1 issue of America magazine. In a review of a recent film “The Case for Christ,”  Jesuit Paul Lickteig writes:*

“. . . these movies are unlikely to convert unbelievers, because they demand a type of belief in God that requires unassailable evidence. The problem is that for those who live a life of faith, certitude is something that we seldom find. Evidence for God’s existence can always be questioned.”

Lickteig’s premise is that we Christians need to offer proof of Christ with our lives, not with apologetics.

“That we so often lack the capacity [I would say the “willingness”] to live our convictions—to practice love, mercy, fidelity and self-sacrifice—leaves the outside observer wondering not if Jesus existed, but if faith really matters. Where is the proof for that?

“… Faith in Christ costs a person everything. As Christians we will be asked to profess the equally implausible beliefs that Jesus rose from the dead and that we are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Really, which is harder to believe?)

“… The only proof we will ever have is observed in the power of Christ to transform the ways we live. The truth is that nothing other than the love of Christ, revealed in a Christian’s life, has ever, or will ever serve as proof for the existence of God.

In this, Lickteig echoes Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner who wrote that the Christian of today must be a mystic (i.e., one who is totally in love with God). Add to that these statements from other notable human beings:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” G. K. Chesterton

“I would have been a Christian if I hadn’t met one.” Mahatma Gandhi

“So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

The visible practice of Christ’s teachings is the only proof that can persuade others that God is real and, especially, that God is good.

+       +       +

* “The case for (and problem with) “The Case for Christ””. Paul Lickteig, S.J. America May 1, 2017. For the complete article that appeared online April 6, check this link:
https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2017/04/06/case-and-problem-case-christ

Behold, I Make All Things New!

We are still, liturgically, in the Easter season. We still hear the wonderful phrase at Mass: Overcome with Paschal joy!

So now that we’ve come through Lent, the sacred Triduum and Easter, has anything changed?

If we are thoughtful people, in love with God, we can’t be the same as we were last February before Lent began. Is there anything different in how we perceive Christ now?

Christ seemed to change for his disciples after his death and resurrection. Or rather, was it their ability to perceive Christ that changed? Consider these post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:
Mary at the tomb

  • Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener.
  • The Emmaus disciples saw only a fellow traveler.
  • The disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee heard a stranger calling out to them from the shore.

 

In each situation, the disciples were given a subtle hint, a reminder that served as a wake-up call: the memory of a special time with the Lord; a moment of intimate friendship recalled by the divine Voice speaking to them once again. He was not recognized until . . .

  • Mary heard him say her name.
  • He broke bread with the Emmaus disciples.
  • He called to his disciples to cast their nets one more time.

What does this have to do with us?

For the most part, we have become a ho-hum people. Easter is politely observed as a feast day, but we can hardly grasp the truth of this most extravagant of mysteries.

Belief almost descends into a platitude that we casually recite in the Creed every Sunday. For that matter, almost all that we hear on Sundays falls on ears that have become over-familiar with the sound of Scripture. The newness and wonder of Easter has, for many, been buried in new clothes and chocolate.

Surely, arriving at a kind of tepid faith is not why Jesus came, died, and was resurrected. Hopefully, as we celebrate this season annually, a light is switched on, a spark within us ignited. A seed planted deep within our spiritual ground (close to being forgotten) suddenly sprouts as the waters of faith revive it. How can we find that spark of belief, that flood of understanding, that fire of trust? We need to be awakened by the light of the Paschal candle, our thirst satisfied by the Easter waters. Such symbols and metaphors have been given to help teach us the reality of the living Christ. St. Paul tells us that  we Christians are poor indeed if we do not believe in the Resurrection. Nonetheless, Easter presents me with so many questions about how the Resurrection of Christ affects my life.

  • Why did Christ come?
  • Why was he executed?
  • How did Christ’s life and Resurrection change the disciples?
  • How has Christ’s life and Resurrection changed history?
  • Mostly, how has it changed me?

These are questions that are most often answered by platitudes, answers that have been fed to us without our understanding, without moving us, answers that we in turn parrot to others, answers that do nothing to change how we live and interact with the Christ in others. And I certainly can’t pretend to answer them for you personally when I can barely approach them myself.

Of course the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus! Don’t you think he would have looked different? After all, his humanity had been totally deformed by torture — unpleasant as it may be to think of — and then totally re-formed through the miracle of his resurrection.

But most of all, what this tells me is about the ever-changing yet always the same face of God and how he re-reveals himself to us each time we seek to know him in prayer and study. Each year our liturgy brings us back to the same situation, the same Scriptures, the same rituals. If we have grown, if we open our eyes and ears, these “same” things differ from year to year.  We are invited to deeper understanding and consequently to greater love and admiration.  This is part of God’s making all things new, just as Jesus told his disciples about the kingdom of heaven: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Matthew 13:52) Though we read and hear the same stories over and over, we are continually enabled to find something new within the familiar.

The important thing is to put our questions to the only One who knows the answers. We have so many pat answers and certitude about so many things that we risk losing a sense of wonder in the face of an infinite Being. In the delusion of having figured everything out, we remain locked within that spiritual cave-tomb, never knowing the resurrection that makes all things new. Instead, we can look forward to an eternity of ever-increasing amazement .

Every year Easter can present us with a new understanding of what our life is about, what it is for. First, ask the questions. Next, listen for the answers with the “ears of your heart” that remain open to the wonder of Christ’s existence on this earth.

Behold, I Make All Things New!
(Revelation 21:5)

When Words Fail

Would that the Lord would give me (along with Isaiah) a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them! 

First, I would like to be awakened myself. Lent is over and has left me weary. Even Easter has not fully roused me. And as with other events in my life, I try to figure out why.

Maybe that’s the problem right there: trying to figure out what’s going on in my head and spirit. When I once complained about this to a wise friend, she answered with a question: “Can you simply rest in the mystery?” She may as well have been speaking Greek to me. Mysteries, to me, are puzzles meant to be solved. So, like Jacob, I spend my soul’s night wrestling with enigma, wearying myself with unending questions.

  • Since Christ has come, why is the world still in such bad shape?
  • Why do the innocent suffer?
  • Why am I so often empty and dry?
  • What does it mean to “rest in the mystery”?
  • And why on earth am I sending this useless message into cyberspace?

OK, time to close the text book, Rosalie. The answers aren’t there. This is one of the many exams I can’t and won’t ace.

No, the very nature of mystery is that one can’t solve it with whys and hows.

Because of the restlessness produced by not having answers, I was reminded of Augustine (our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee) and then, in turn, to comments about Augustine by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams refers to Augustine’s being “deeply, even disturbingly, affected by music” so that where words fail, music steps in to supply the soul’s need for expression. The music of the heart surpasses the music of instruments.

Commenting on the Psalms, Augustine writes of “jubilant” singing:

This kind of singing is a sound which means that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot speak of . . . the ineffable God – ineffable because you cannot talk about him. And if you cannot talk about him, and it is improper just to keep silence, why, what is there left for you to do but “jubilate” – with your heart rejoicing without words, and the immense breadth of your joy not rationed out in syllables?

It seems that such “jubilance” comes from the heart having discovered the beauty and love of God, unable to express it in any way resembling words.

But of course, though this teacher (moi) is no longer in the classroom, the classroom has not left her. What’s the lesson here? What does this all mean to me? I timidly raise my hand:

Could it be what Augustine discovered? That our hearts – my heart – is restless until it seeks its rest in a simple, quiet and even brainless leap into the heart of Christ?

Rowan Williams* and Augustine say it better:

The violent love of God breaks through deafness and blindness; the violent desire of human souls for God breaks through dumbness. The heart has no words, but it cannot contain itself in silence.

 *The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams. Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass. Pp. 98-99

And Augustine, in Expositions of the Psalms, writes that the only way to calm our restlessness is to love and desire always:

There is a kind of prayer that never ceases, an interior prayer that is desire… Your continuous desire is your continuous voice. You will only fall silent if you stop loving. Love grown cold is the heart’s silence; love on fire is the heart’s clamor. If your love abides all the time, you are crying out all the time; if you are crying out all the time, you are desiring all the time; and if you are desiring, you are returning to rest.