Ascendit Deus in jubilatione

The liturgy of Ascension Thursday puts a tremendous emphasis on joy: ‘Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving,’ as a collect puts it. The first reason for joy is the triumph of Our Lord: Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae. ‘God has gone up with shouts of joy, the Lord with a trumpet-blast.’ As the members of His body and the subjects of Kingdom we rejoice that the Lord has gone into His glory. The Exodus of Christ from death to life is not complete until He has left this world of corruption, and returned in triumph to the glory that He had before the beginning. The second reason for joy is that exaltation of our Head gives hope to us the members that we will attain to glory: Christi … ascénsio est nostra provéctio, et quo procéssit glória cápitis, eo spes vocátur et córporis. ‘the ascension of Christ … is our exaltation, and, where the head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.’ Continue reading

Welter and waste and darkness over the deep


Sermon preached in the Carmel Mayerling, Easter Sunday, 2015.

The heathen tribes that lived here in central Europe before the coming of Christianity thought that human life was ultimately doomed. In the end cold and darkness would win. For a time light a space of light and order could be defended against the forces of chaos, the monsters of the dark, but in the end evil would win out. The sun that warms this earth would be eaten by a great wolf. “Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent.” At last, the land would sink into the chaotic floods of the sea. Perhaps though the land would rise again, and the whole story will repeat itself. (A story reminiscent of some current theories). The nomadic tribes of the ancient Levant, among whom the patriarchs lived, are supposed to have had similar ideas.[1] For them too the world was a chaotic wasteland, a desert in which demons of the dark wandered about ready to kill. Human life had to be defended against the powers of darkness. It is thought that at the first full moon of spring there was a feast of new year in which human life was to be begun a new. The tents were surrounded with a circle of lamb blood to protect them, from the terrors of the night.

There is an important element of truth in all these pessimistic views of the world. The world was created out of nothing, and there is a certain tendency in created things to pass away again into the nothingness from which they came. God created the world good, but his creation was not complete at once: “the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep.” In the six days of creation He orders the world making of it a garden, a house, and a temple— a place of order and beauty, a fit habitation for human life, and a mirror of His glory. But then our first parents sinned, and the world threatened to fall back into chaos. But God does not abandon mankind to the fate they deserve—goodness and light and order will win in the end, not evil and darkness and chaos. Through His covenants He begins to restore the creation that man has marred. In passover of Egypt He adopts elements of the ancient nomadic New Year feast, but gives them a greater meaning. The angel of death, the terror of the night, becomes a means of deliverance for the people, bringing death to their enemies. For the people of Israel the lambs are killed in their stead, buying back for them the lives they deserve to lose. And then, in the crossing of the Red Sea, the chaotic floods of water become a means for destroying evil and saving good.

As Ratzinger notes[1], the passover continued to be celebrated in the home, even after the establishment of the temple. The lambs were slaughtered in the temple, but then taken home, and the houses were marked with their blood. The restoration of creation each year began with the little world of the home, marked off from the darkness, and the chaos. The restoration next moved to the level of the whole city of Jerusalem: no-one was allowed to leave the city during the passover night, so that the city became a house sealed off from the dark.

Our Lord to celebrated the passover in a house within the holy city, but then He got up and “went with his disciples out be­yond the brook Cedron,” that is, beyond the borders of the city into the outer darkness and chaos. He is later brought back into the city, but then taken out again, and He dies outside the city. And by that death He conquers death and chaos. He rises to new life, as the beginning of the definitive new creation—full of light and beauty.

When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen one she thinks He is the gardener. Superficially this is an error, but in a deeper sense she is quite right; He is indeed the gardener of creation who is remaking the whole world, healing all chaos, disorder, and death. But His restoration begins small with the seed of His body that will slowly grow into a tree that can shelter all of creation. The Church is the garden in which His new creation begins. It is shielded on all sides from the powers of evil by the blood of the lamb, but open for Him.

And a Carmelite convent is a little Church— a space closed off from the chaos of the world, a garden in which you can meet the Risen Lord and be remade by Him. Each of you must seal your own heart off from evil, and allow the heavenly gardener to root out all the weeds of you soul, so that in you that new creation can begin, which will be completed when the He comes again in glory, and celebrates His final triumph over all evil: “And He shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be among them and shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall not be any more, nor shall sorrow nor lamentation nor pain be any more, be­cause the first things have gone. And He who sat upon the throne said: Behold, I make all new.”


[1] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Passover of Jesus and the Church: A Meditation for Holy Thursday,” in: Behold The Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

An Easter Sermon for Contemplative Nuns

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

(The following is a translation of the sermon that I preached yesterday at the Carmel in Mayerling).

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb  (John 20:11). Dom Mauro Giussepe Lepori, Abbot General O.Cist, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year. Afterwards he wrote the following:

From those first days in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem at the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, I was deeply moved. At the same time, however, the more I went to the holiest sites of Christianity, the more I had to admit that I was not really aware of what they represented, nor of the events that had happened right there: that there in that place Christ had died, that there he had been buried and there he had risen, that there he had met Mary Magdalene and the other women, that Peter and John had ran there…. I felt that the Lord wanted to offer me something more than just simple emotions. On the morning of the third day, after having celebrated the Eucharist at half past four on the Tomb of Christ, I went to Calvary to pray Vigils. […] The first reading of the monastic Vigils [was] from the Song of Songs. One sentence struck me deeply, as if Jesus himself was telling me it from the Cross: “You have seized my heart, my sister, my bride, you have seized my heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song 4:9).

In this verse Dom Mauro saw the whole mystery of salvation summed up: God allows his heart to be taken by by his people. Everything that He does in the created world He does out of the vehemence of this love:  “The whole Gospel and the whole history of Christian mysticism witness to how much the Lord, on every occasion, has incarnated and expressed his passionate love for the human person, his unreserved giving of himself.”

This love is so great that it could not be defeated by the unfaithfulness, the heartlessness, the cruelty of God’s people: “For a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” A love so great that it causes the eternal Son to descend into the darkness of this world to pursue His beloved. A love so great that it causes Him to live the poverty and drudgery of our existence for thirty years. A love by which He takes our punishment on Himself. A love so great that it turns the other cheek to our enmity in order to transform it. He who longed for a glance of love from the eyes of His bride saw therein the terrible glint of cruelty as we tortured and killed Him. A love so great that it moved Him to enter the darkness of the tomb. But a love so great that not even death itself could conquer it. He rose to new life in order to give us new life, in order to transform our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh that we might love Him again.

The Church is Mary Magdalene in the garden; the sinner who has repented and who now weeps with love for her Lord. And who then sees Him alive beyond hope. This is the life of the Church, the vocation of Christians; to weep for the Lord, and then to meet Him, to look at Him, to take his heart with that glance of the eyes, and to receive His love. And this is above all your vocation, venerable sisters, here in the Carmel, at the contemplative heart of the Church. It is your vocation to give your whole lives to the one thing necessary: the glance of the eyes that wins the heart of the bridegroom. It is not an easy vocation, since we cannot hold Him fast until He returns on the last day, but it is the most beautiful vocation. And today it is pure joy; today He comes and dries your tears, and calls to you, venerable sisters, with a love so strong that it shakes the earth to its foundations and melts the mountains like wax, a love that conquers death and bursts open the grave: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come” (Song 2:10-12).

The Spiritual Sense of Amalek

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“Then came Amalek and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” The first reading at Mass today is the magnificent battle between Israel and Amalek. But who is Amalek? In Genesis 36 we learn that Amalek was a grandson of Esau. “Amalek fought with Israel” thus means “Esau fought with Jacob.” Esau’s folly in selling his birthright for a bowl of pottage is folly to which his brother’s descendants too are tempted. “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.” This is a type of the whole history of the people of Israel. As long as they streach out their hands toward God all is well, but as we know they keep on tiring of this; they find it to difficult to have the living God as their portion, and keep reaching after seemingly more tangible goods: “they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.”

Don’t Even Try (Again)

On the General calendar tomorrow’s Mass has the Epistle to Philemon and the Gospel of the man who tries to build a tower without calculating the costs (on the Cistercian calendar we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lady as a Solemnity). So I thought I would revise some thoughts that I posted on this Sunday three years ago.

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S. Paul’s tone in the epistle is remarkably peaceful and  joyful. An old man alone in prison, it seems that Onesimus has been sent to him as a consolation. He says that Onesimus has become a son to him, and is as dear to him as his own heart, “whom I would have retained with me.” But he sends him away quite joyfully. In his place I would have found plenty of excuses to keep him with me. After all, I am in prison, I need Onesimus far more than Philemon. Moreover, it is hardly fitting that Philemon, a Christian, should keep another Christian as a slave; he ought not to return. I think it is often the case that while fooling myself into thinking that I am giving everything to God, I am in fact finding excuses to retain some little consolation for myself. (“Lord, I give everything to you, I shall even forgive so-and-so, but not till tomorrow, today I need to savor my anger… This little consolation I must have..”)

Perhaps we do not have the same tranquil joy in the faith that Paul has, because we are always trying to retain something for ourselves. I think this is the key to the Gospel: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” We must “hate” everything in which we are tempted to seek our consolation apart from the Lord. The two parables that our Lord gives in explanation have puzzled me for a long time. In the usual interpretation the tower refers Christian perfection. Thus Cornelius a Lapide concludes that it is better not to become Christian at all if one is not willing to give up everything. Although I was taken in by this initially, I now think that this cannot possibly be right. For if it was no one could become a Christian. Who looking at his resources can really says that he has enough to build that tower? And we don’t have a choice; we are commanded to become Christian. (As Notburga points out.)

S. Thomas gives a somewhat more subtle interpretation than a Lapide in the very last article of the IIa IIae. It is the magnificent article in which he argues that one ought not to deliberate long before entering the religious life. Objection 3 brings up the tower parable, taking the tower to refer to religious life. S. Thomas does not disagree that the tower refers to the religious life, but he gives a different interpretation of what calculating means:

Again it need not be a matter of deliberation whether one ought to renounce all that one has, or whether by so doing one may be able to attain to perfection; whereas it is a matter of deliberation whether that which one is doing amounts to the renunciation of all that he has, since unless he does renounce (which is to have the wherewithal) he cannot, as the text goes on to state, be Christ’s disciple, and this is to build the tower.

But I am still not convinced. It seems like the whole point of the parable is “don’t even try,” don’t build the tower. And the next parable seems to reinforce this, “don’t fight the war.” Therefore I propose a different interpretation of the tower. The tower is the attempt to retain something as our own. Towers were, in fact, often used as look-out points to watch over one’s possessions. It seems to me that our Lord is saying, “don’t even try; you don’t have the resources to keep something for yourself.” Whenever we try to hold on to something as our own, and to find our consolation in that rather than in God, then God becomes suddenly our enemy, threatening our stuff; we seem like a king with ten thousand facing twenty thousand. So our Lord says “don’t even try; give up all your possessions.” “Every one of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple.”

So I think S. Paul’s tranquility is the result of having really given up everything, and experienced that everything which we give up we receive again transformed. And this is what he tries to teach Philemon:

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season from thee, that thou mightest receive him again for ever: Not now as a slave, but instead of a slave, a most dear brother

Everything which we give up we receive again a hundredfold; not as a slave (ordered to us) but as a brother (ordered together with us to God).

You Will Be Honored in the Presence of All

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Someone asked me for the text of a sermon that I preached last Sunday in Heiligenkreuz. So here it is reconstructed and translated from notes and memory.

“When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)

Reverend Fathers, Venerable Brothers, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The desire for honor, recognition, praise, good report, approval is rooted deep in our humanity. So is the fear of shame, exposure, and blame. Nor is this entirely a bad thing. There can be an innocent joy in being praised. C.S. Lewis notes that good children rejoice with innocent pleasure in the praise of their parents. And not just children even brute beasts–loyal dogs and horses–rejoice in the praise of their masters. There is something beautiful and graceful in this joy. It is, Lewis says, the specific joy of the inferior, “the pleasure a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.”

The great Lewis scholar Thomas Howard gives the following example. In a documentary on the day-to-day workings of Windsor Castle, the old servant in charge of hoisting the royal standard was interviewed. There are hundreds of servants at Windsor so of course the Queen cannot know all of them, but this old man said, with evident joy, “She knows who I am.”

There is a graceful, a beautiful joy in praise, but there is also a warped, perverse, sinful craving for praise. Man was originally clothed in glory and grace, but through sin he was stripped naked. Poor and exposed, man tries to cloth himself in something to forget his nakedness and misery. St. Bernard says of those on the first step of pride–curiosity–that not being able to stand the knowledge of themselves they turn outward. But soon the distractions of curiosity are not enough and they seek the praise of others to hide their shame. They seek a lie with which to deceive themselves.

What a miserable life vainglory gives those enslaved to it. The vainglorious despise the others and consider their own judgement better except with regard to themselves; when they are praised they suddenly find the judgement of others trustworthy. The vainglorious Pharisees in the Gospel cannot enjoy the banquet since they are so occupied with their own honor. The vainglorious learn no truth in conversation since they are only concerned with saying something clever and appearing brilliant.

St. Bernard describes how this leads to higher steps of pride. The eighth step is particularly insufferable and ubiquitous–even in the monastery. Those on the eighth step are so caught in the lie that they cannot abide any legitimate criticism, anything which breaks the illusion, and so they violently defend themselves against all blame:  “A man either says ‘I did it not’ or if he did it “I acted rightly in so doing’, or if he acted wrongly ‘not to a serious extent,’ or, if he was seriously wrong, [that worst and most insufferable of all excuses:] “I meant well”. (De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae XVII)

We have to stop this, brothers. If we don’t free ourselves from the lie, we will be exposed when it really matters: at the Judgement of God. All our nightmares of being embarrassed, found out, seen through; of stuttering and forgetting our lines on stage; of failing our exams; the panic, the burning shame–they will all be fulfilled in the most horrible way. “Our only response could be sheer spleen, screaming, and mockery… infinite torture… hatred, irrationality, and burning.” This is hell: to be exposed for all eternity before the undeceivable eyes of all the justified of every nation, the hosts of angels, and our Creator Himself.  “And then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”

The only means of escaping this fate is humility: giving up the lie, admitting our smallness, poverty, and sinfulness. “Humility,” St. Bernard writes, “is the virtue which enables a man to see himself as he truly is, and thereby to discover his worthlessness.”

But humility need not be bitter humiliation. It can be sweet. When we praise God, when we are filled with wonder and reverence before His glory, then we desire  to confess our smallness before Him. To me the most beautiful thing about the monastic Liturgy of the Hours is the Gloria Patri: after every Psalm we step out of our stalls and bow low in reverence and awe before the majesty of the Most Blessed Trinity. What joy!

This is the joy that todays epistle imparts:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 12:18-24)

Our confrère Pater Robert Abeynaike has demonstrated that this passage refers to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Lord becomes really, truly,  substantially present on the altar, but He does not cease to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father; no, the whole heavenly court becomes present with Him. Untold saints kneeling before Him, hosts of angels veiling their faces before His Glory, they are with Him here. And we enter into this mystery and bend our knees, and adore, and wonder, and are filled with joy and humility.

But if we are humble then our Lord promises to crown our humility with another reward: with praise. “When your host comes he [will] say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all…” Amen.

Cruorem Roseum

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Cuius corpus sanctissimum
in ara crucis torridum,
sed et cruorem roseum
gustando, Dei vivimus.
Upon the Altar of the Cross
His Body hath redeemed our loss:
and tasting of his roseate Blood,
our life is hid with Him in God.

The “cruor roseum” mentioned here in the Hymn for Vespers of Easter Sunday is the rose-coloured mixture of the streams of blood and water from the pierced side of the crucified. The inebriating rose coloured mixture that flows from his side is the rosy-fingered Dawn of the whole sacramental dispensation of the Church: herald and foretaste of the bright sun of the heavenly feast, his kingdom where he will again drink with us “the fruit of the vine:” Laetare Ierusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.

Sabbath Breaking

Tilman Riemenschneider, Last Supper - Detail

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.  And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath.  But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (John 5:15-17)

Charity alone is his changeless and eternal rest, his eternal and changeless tranquillity, his eternal and changeless Sabbath [. . .] For his charity is his very will and also his very goodness, and all this is nothing but his being. (St Aelred of Rievaulx, Speculum Caritatis I,19)

It is hard to fathom the enormity of accusing the Eternal Son of breaking the Sabbath. He IS the Sabbath. In Him the Father rests with infinite contentment, and together they breath that eternal sigh of love fulfilled that is the Holy Spirit. All of creation is ordered to entry into that seventh day of the Divine Life. The Son longs to give us a share of His eternal rest, but we have turned against that rest, through our sins we have banished ourselves to a world of toil and trouble. And so He is still at work He comes into the world to create us all over again, to liberate us from the task-masters of Egypt, and bring us into the promised land of the true and eternal Sabbath.

The healing of the cripple in John 5 is a sign of this new creation that God has already begun to make. And for this they accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath! But isn’t the accusation that the Pharisees make one that we make as well? I was thinking of this other day when I was complaining in my heart about some minor bureaucratic frustration; wasn’t I in fact telling Our Lord, ‘stop breaking my Sabbath’? He is at work in our lives; everything that His providence ordains for us is meant to help to create us anew, to destroy the old man and his works and bring the new man to life, so that we may enter ever more into that eternal rest which is the very life of the Triune God.

The Dedication of the Lateran as the Feast of the Church Militant

Today is the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica by Pope Silvester I in the year 324. Following closely on All Saints and All Souls, which bring to mind the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering, we can see the Dedication of the ‘Mother of all Churches’ as the day of the Church Militant.

The texts for dedication of a Church are full of references to Jerusalem, the “city of peace”. Continue reading

Archduke Otto of Austria, 1912-2011

Yesterday I was in Vienna for the funeral of His Imperial and Royal Highness, Archduke Otto of Austria, Royal Prince of Hungary etc., eldest son and rightful heir of Bl. Charles of Austria, the last Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary.

Requiem fŸr Otto v. Habsburg; mit Kardinal Christoph Schšnborn & al.

One of the the most striking things about the solemn and elaborate ceremony was how joyful it was. From whence came that joy? What could be more calculated to plunge us once again into all the piled-up sadness of the 20th century – that most ruinous of all periods in the history of Central Europe – than the funeral of the head of the House of Austria who lived through practically all of it? Otto von Habsburg was still a child when the the World War shattered the “clay pot” of Austria-Hungary into dozens of unstable fragments, but he was then quite an active behind-the-scenes player in the following decades which saw the Anschluss, the Second World War, the establishment of Marxist dictatorships in almost all of the former crown lands, and the astonishing spiritual and moral decline of the West. Continue reading