Holy Saturday Reflection

From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday:

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Quis Sum Ego?

I wrote this “personal statement” for a writing class I am taking this semester, and since the prompt asked us to write this statement for entry onto a blog, I figured I should probably go ahead and post the final draft to my real blog! Here you are:

Three words, spoken as a question, can bring both the strong and the weak to their knees. Fathers, mothers, children, adults, the rich, the poor, the idealist, the realist, the atheist, and the believer, all shall succumb to the power of the words, if they but say them with reverence and honesty. Three of the shortest words are these: Who am I? The cocksure might change their order and proudly say, “Who I am,” but the philosopher, the poet, and the garbage collector know the folly of such vanity. When spoken from a place of honesty, the words can only truly form a question for us mortals, and an ever-changing one at that. Once one recognizes the importance of this question, it can come to dominate and give purpose to one’s every action and thought.

Yet most people I know never really ask themselves, “Who am I?” Perhaps this comes down to our culture and our language. Our culture seems to be full of people looking for their “identity,” but doing so only within the context of other people and other things instead of taking a quiet moment to contemplate the question, “Who am I?” As a result, even the word “identity,” has grown shallow and has come to  describe not the essence of who each person is, but rather the people and things each person cares for. (A useful note: if I use the word “identity,” from here on, I do not mean this shallow worldly definition, but rather the deep and all-important answer to the question that I have mentioned many times already.) Perhaps people are scared to ask, “Who am I?” because for some reason the words sound whiny in English, which could certainly be connected to the aforementioned shallowness that has become linked to any search for identity. As a possible remedy to this, I tend to like the Latin translation of the words better: Quis sum ego? Maybe I am biased because I love Latin, but as most things written in Latin tend to be more serious than flippant, the language seems to better transfer the meaning of those three words into a concrete feeling. I can see a Roman politician with a furrowed brow sitting in the Senate at the end of the day – after all the other members have gone home to their favorite bottles of Alban wine – muttering to himself over and over, “Quis sum ego?” The character could readily be played by Charlton Heston in the  1970s Hollywood version of this digression.

Moving back to the point at hand, you might be wondering whether I have ever asked myself this question that I seem to hold in such high regard. For many years, I operated under the same shallow view of my identity as much of the rest of the world. The few times when someone actually asked me, “Who are you?” I thought this a very strange question and answered it with something like, “Well, I’m Mark, of course.” If they pressed further for a somewhat deeper answer, I would begin to mumble out obscure accomplishments, passions, and the like. I know so much about how one can avoid asking and answering this most existential question precisely because I avoided it most of my life. In fact, I never actually took a long enough look inside of myself to ask a question like, “Who am I?” (I still said it in English at that point) until just before my 21st birthday.

As my birthday approached, I was in the midst of the deepest identity crisis of my life. The year and a half prior had been a roller coaster of depression and confusion, and it all came to a head in those early months of 2009. My undergraduate studies were coming to an end, not because I had completed a degree, but rather because I did not have the desire to continue forward with one. The men and women whom I considered my friends had either abandoned me or had been pushed away by my actions. The hours I spent brooding in my room greatly outnumbered those spent in the company of others. I felt like I stood on the brink of a precipice being buffeted by fierce winds from all sides. Pushed to an edge so steep, I had three choices: I could jump off and offer myself to the mercy of the cliffs, I could stand on that spot and slowly whither in the winds until I was swept away like so much dust, or I could turn around and try to make my way in a different direction.

I despised the power those winds of isolation and self-loathing imposed on me, so I knew staying still could not be the way. To jump or turn? Now, don’t take that statement as an option between life and death; both paths involved my life continuing. The jump in this instance was a complete change of scenery; a jump from my comfort zone into a new and foreign world. Standing on that cliff, it seemed more logical to just continue forward rather than to turn around, and so one night, overcome with the deep sort of despair bred only in isolation and loneliness, I laid out my plan. In just one evening of frenzied work, I had chosen a new place to live, Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii, found a loft for rent, contacted the landlord, and figured out that by selling my car I could get enough start-up money for the flight and first month’s rent. I even found a job opening at a small store down the street from my prospective apartment and sent an e-mail to the manager. My mind was made up. Within the month I would jump off the cliff and move to Hawaii, and nothing could stop me!

My father stopped me. Truthfully, he didn’t physically stop me, but the next day I called him and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the plan my sudden burst of action had nearly completed the night before. I took a big breath and tabled Kauai, just for the moment though, I told myself. Around this same time, as if to betray the side of me that wanted to jump off the cliff, something that had lain dormant in my soul began to resurface. I was raised in a Catholic family, but I slowly drifted away from the faith after I left for school simply because life in college was easier without a conscience. The ultimate act of “turning around” for me would be to return to that faith, and inertia makes turning very difficult. At the same time, my worldly life of passions had only brought upon me despair and pain, so I began to seek something higher. I started going back to Mass. I adamantly told those who asked me that I wasn’t really going back to Mass, though, and I made up the story that a girl I liked was drawing me there. Despite these claims, I would sometimes find myself sitting in the pews at the old brick church on the Hill without concretely remembering how I got there. I particularly gravitated to a Tuesday night candlelit liturgy that featured a Latin chant choir. I liked the candles, the incense, and the music because they were so beautiful, and I liked the darkness because it allowed me to think. Sometime later I wrote on this very blog that I had been, “drawn into the peaceful darkness within because the darkness without was unsettling to my soul.”

In those pews, surrounded by that peaceful darkness, I finally spoke the fateful words into the perfumed and candlelit air: “Who am I?” Like my Roman politician, I asked over and over. I asked within the context of lengthy and angry rants, and I asked through the wordless simplicity of bitter weeping. For the first time in my life, I truly asked. For the first time in my life, I truly received. No radical Divine Revelation appeared before my eyes, and no word from God Almighty entered my ears and gave me eternal peace. Instead, I received a community of faith and a steady direction in which to travel. I turned from the cliff, and found a beautifully narrow road called the Catholic Church. In the years since, this road has led me to the heights of the Andes and the slums of Lima. I have seen the beauty of cathedrals and the beauty of homeless shelters. I have spent time learning from lofty-minded academics and humble-souled Franciscan friars. All done in search of an answer to an answerless question I posed to the darkness some three years ago this February.

So the question remains, and will always remain, “Quis sum ego?” I have come to believe, as I have already implied, that a person can never come to an end of answering this question. The inappropriate, yet common, response to the knowledge that we can never fully answer this metaphysical and eternal question is hopelessness — that is, to cease asking the question and instead curl up into a dismal ball of despair. The appropriate response, however, requires turning our very lives into a search for the answer, which is itself the road I speak of. I have found myself guilty of the hopelessness of the first response many times in my life, some even quite recently. I also clearly understand the ridiculousness of that perspective and how I should be living instead, but because I am a broken human being, I tend to ignore my reason and sweep myself away into that land of despair and ugly self-pity. To prevent myself from falling into such a trap again, and to otherwise hold myself accountable to the ideals I want to live by, I now surround myself with the aforementioned community. The members pick me up when I fall off the road and I do the same for them.

So if this road I have mentioned is in some way the actual answer to the question, “Quis sum ego?” where is it leading? Will such a path ever lead to true knowledge of one’s identity? My answer is yes; but only in one instance: death. You see, I have this sneaking suspicion that when we die and come before the Just Judge, He will look deeply, lovingly into our eyes and simply tell us who we really are. The full knowledge of how we did or did not live up to this, the ultimate reality of our being, will be our conviction and our acquittal. In that line of thinking, it follows that we should seek to know the One who will speak to us on that day, the One who understands who we are better than we do ourselves. Walking the road that seeks self-knowledge then becomes synonymous with one that seeks the knowledge and the love of God. This road, rather than being hopeless, suddenly brims with the hope that on that Day of Judgment we might have grown to know God, and therefore ourselves, well enough that the words we hear might sound less strange to our ears and more like a description of the lives we just finished living moments before. Until that day when I will finally know the complete answer, I can happily respond to this ultimate human question as St. Teresa of Avila once did: “We shall never know ourselves except by endeavoring to know God.” And so I shall endeavor.

Prayer in Distress.

Taken from Compline prayer for Tuesday nights (Psalm 143: 1-11). This struck me so deeply tonight and I had to write it down.

 

Lord, listen to my prayer;
turn your ear to my appeal.
You are faithful, you are just; give answer.
Do not call your servant to judgment
for no one is just in your sight.

The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.
Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.

I remember the days that are past;
I ponder all your works.
I muse on what your hand has wrought
and to you I stretch out my hands.
Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you.

Lord, make haste and answer.
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
Make me know the way I should walk:
to you I lift up my soul.

Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will
for you, O Lord, are my God.
Let your good spirit guide me
in ways that are level and smooth.

For your name’s sake, Lord, save my life;
in your justice save my soul from distress.

 

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be forever.

Amen.

Late Have I Loved You.

(Still the most beautiful prayer I have ever come across, and it is just as relevant to me today as the first time I read it.)

 

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness, I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you, they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

-St. Augustine

Campion’s Brag.

I recently began to read more about St. Edmund Campion and I love his story! St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581) was an Englishman who left his country because he desired to join the Catholic Church. After studying under St. Ignatius Loyola in Europe and becoming a Jesuit, St. Edmund was sent back to England to evangelize his people. Upon hearing of his return, the leaders of the English government hunted him without reprieve. He jumped from Catholic home to Catholic home celebrating Mass, preaching, and narrowly avoiding capture. He famously wrote this letter, explanation of his mission, and defense of the faith to his pursuers. Though he titled the apologia, “Challenge to the Privy Council,” the English disparagingly referred to it as “Campion’s Brag,” the title by which it is most commonly known today. It is one of the earliest defenses of the faith to appear in the English language during the Reformation. St. Edmund was eventually captured, tortured, subjected to a fixed trial, and then hanged, drawn and quartered at the Tyburn. St. Edmund Campion, pray for us!

 

To the Right Honourable, the Lords of Her Majesty’s Privy Council:

Whereas I have come out of Germany and Bohemia, being sent by my superiors, and adventured myself into this noble realm, my dear country, for the glory of God and benefit of souls, I thought it like enough that, in this busy, watchful, and suspicious world, I should either sooner or later be intercepted and stopped of my course.

Wherefore, providing for all events, and uncertain what may become of me, when God shall haply deliver my body into durance, I supposed it needful to put this in writing in a readiness, desiring your good lordships to give it your reading, for to know my cause. This doing, I trust I shall ease you of some labour. For that which otherwise you must have sought for by practice of wit, I do now lay into your hands by plain confession. And to the intent that the whole matter may be conceived in order, and so the better both understood and remembered, I make thereof these nine points or articles, directly, truly and resolutely opening my full enterprise and purpose.

i. I confess that I am (albeit unworthy) a priest of the Catholic Church, and through the great mercy of God vowed now these eight years into the religion [religious order] of the Society of Jesus. Hereby I have taken upon me a special kind of warfare under the banner of obedience, and also resigned all my interest or possibility of wealth, honour, pleasure, and other worldly felicity.

ii. At the voice of our General, which is to me a warrant from heaven and oracle of Christ, I took my voyage from Prague to Rome (where our General Father is always resident) and from Rome to England, as I might and would have done joyously into any part of Christendom or Heatheness, had I been thereto assigned.

iii. My charge is, of free cost to preach the Gospel, to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors—in brief, to cry alarm spiritual against foul vice and proud ignorance, wherewith many of my dear countrymen are abused.

iv. I never had mind, and am strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me, to deal in any respect with matter of state or policy of this realm, as things which appertain not to my vocation, and from which I gladly restrain and sequester my thoughts.

v. I do ask, to the glory of God, with all humility, and under your correction, three sorts of indifferent and quiet audiences: the first, before your Honours, wherein I will discourse of religion, so far as it toucheth the common weal and your nobilities: the second, whereof I make more account, before the Doctors and Masters and chosen men of both universities, wherein I undertake to avow the faith of our Catholic Church by proofs innumerable—Scriptures, councils, Fathers, history, natural and moral reasons: the third, before the lawyers, spiritual and temporal, wherein I will justify the said faith by the common wisdom of the laws standing yet in force and practice.

vi. I would be loath to speak anything that might sound of any insolent brag or challenge, especially being now as a dead man to this world and willing to put my head under every man’s foot, and to kiss the ground they tread upon. Yet I have such courage in avouching the majesty of Jesus my King, and such affiance in his gracious favour, and such assurance in my quarrel, and my evidence so impregnable, and because I know perfectly that no one Protestant, nor all the Protestants living, nor any sect of our adversaries (howsoever they face men down in pulpits, and overrule us in their kingdom of grammarians and unlearned ears) can maintain their doctrine in disputation. I am to sue most humbly and instantly for combat with all and every of them, and the most principal that may be found: protesting that in this trial the better furnished they come, the better welcome they shall be.

vii. And because it hath pleased God to enrich the Queen my Sovereign Lady with notable gifts of nature, learning, and princely education, I do verily trust that if her Highness would vouchsafe her royal person and good attention to such a conference as, in the second part of my fifth article I have motioned, or to a few sermons, which in her or your hearing I am to utter such manifest and fair light by good method and plain dealing may be cast upon these controversies, that possibly her zeal of truth and love of her people shall incline her noble Grace to disfavour some proceedings hurtful to the realm, and procure towards us oppressed more equity.

viii. Moreover I doubt not but you, her Highness’ Council, being of such wisdom and discreet in cases most important, when you shall have heard these questions of religion opened faithfully, which many times by our adversaries are huddled up and confounded, will see upon what substantial grounds our Catholic Faith is builded, how feeble that side is which by sway of the time prevaileth against us, and so at last for your own souls, and for many thousand souls that depend upon your government, will discountenance error when it is bewrayed [revealed], and hearken to those who would spend the best blood in their bodies for your salvation. Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.

ix. If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour. I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.

A 13 year old’s September 11th

I was 13 years old when the attacks shook our country. Living in Colorado, I certainly wasn’t directly affected by the violence, but I look back at that Tuesday in September as the day I lost my childhood innocence. I was just old enough to truly understand the depth of what was happening, but I still didn’t know how to respond to the intense pain and deep sense of helplessness that I felt in my heart. Around this very time that evening (11:00 pm or so) I laid in my bed reflecting on everything I had seen that day and I started to weep. I sat up and wrote the majority of this poem on a piece of paper. Sure the meter and rhyming schemes are constantly changing, but it was the first time I can actually remember using writing as an outlet. (The last stanza was clearly written over a month later when I heard we had started the campaign in Afghanistan. My emotions were still pretty raw even then.) It is worth mentioning that a teacher of mine caught wind of this poem and submitted to a writing annual. It is published in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans, 2002 edition.

The devil came to our country today,
In New York City and DC he played.
He sped through towns in a scary disguise,
In planes with people in them he flies.

The brave and valiant pilots died,
A stab wound somewhere fatal,
Then these violent men would take,
The jets to use for later.

No passengers would land that day,
All died inside these bombs.
The terrorists took them to their graves,
Into buildings they flew headlong.

In Pennsylvania more victims fell,
Although some lives were saved.
The passengers defended the White House,
Leaving many people unscathed.

The people in that deadly jet,
Were heroes all along.
They sacrificed their lives for others,
And detonated a living bomb.

And from the ashes of the World Trade Center,
And the rubble of the Pentagon,
AMERICA rises singing grief,
Many lives have been taken by this thief.

While firefighter and rescue teams,
Search and hope to find,
We are starting to rebuild everything,
Our country and our minds.

Many people have been found,
More dead than alive,
And still our country trusts in GOD,
To bring us through this time.

Now our country is striking back,
At the suspects of this killing,
Innocent slayings will desist,
Hopefully and GOD willing.

“The Only Way to Never Hurt is to Never Love at All.”

Sometimes I really feel doomed to the bitterness that comes from loving more than the love I receive in return. Forgive me if I sound sour, that is not my intended tone. I simply want to muse about this thought and this medium is readily available to me. I’ve questioned this nearly every time I have been disappointed in love and life, but perhaps I am seeing it in a new light now. Before, I would fall to my knees and tearfully question God if I perhaps am not meant to be happy in this life. Happy. Funny word. What does it even mean? I think that question is meant for people named Aristotle and Aquinas, not Westhoff. So what, then? Why does this feeling persist and remain? Perhaps I am just not fully satisfied with the miracle of each breath the Father has gifted me with. Perhaps I need to call on the detachment of John of the Cross and Ignatius Loyola. This is certainly true. Were I detached from the world and satisfied with God alone, I clearly would not be lamenting the continued scourge that I perceive myself to be afflicted with. I do try, though, and I have never claimed to be a great saint worthy of such gifts from the Almighty. Unworthy. Yes, terribly unworthy. Maybe that holds the answer then. Not that I am unworthy of grace and therefore am saddled with difficulty and woe, quite the opposite. None are worthy of the gifts given them, but maybe I have only now finally understood my gift. The gift of giving love and not receiving it back in full measure. What trick is this, though? The gift of non-reciprocated love? Please, this is no gift. Consider, however, the One among us who gave (and still gives) the largest measure of love while receiving the smallest portion in return. The man from Nazareth, Love himself! Jesus Christ. So, Lord, am I supposed to be like you in some small way? Always giving and never receiving the full measure back? Not that my love or rejection could ever come close to that of your cross, but is it a dim reflection just the same? If this is the case then alone I shall surely fail, but with You, Lord, I can do all things. Only You know the answer, so until the day comes, which I am moving towards with every passing moment, when I finally share with you the full knowledge of my very creation, I beg you to strengthen me. Only you have ever borne any (and every) burden without stumbling, so when I inevitably fall, pick me up Jesus, and help me to say with all your saints, “Nunc coepi. Now I begin.”