Archive for Penance

Thirsting for Lent

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Front image_drinking-waterThis column originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Thirsting for Lent.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—this Lenten trinity of practices has long been the foundation of our penitential season as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Many people will adopt new methods of prayer, engage in the spiritual practice of fasting and offer time and resources in the form of almsgiving. Each of these helps us to focus our attention on what we might otherwise overlook and challenges us to, as one option for the distribution of ashes puts it, “repent and believe in the Gospel” in increasingly attentive ways.

Even with Lent now underway, some people might still be looking for a way to connect better to their faith beyond the usual tradition of “giving something up.” I suggest that this year we might benefit from focusing our attention on something totally different, something often taken for granted: water.

With the short phrase “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) counted among the traditional seven last words of Jesus from the cross and proclaimed in the Passion account on Good Friday, it seems that we already have a reason to reconsider water as part of our Lenten practice of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Too often this phrase has become “overly spiritualized.” It is perhaps too easy, too quick and neat to read this line symbolically as a reference to the waters of eternal life. There is a temptation here for us to ignore the real and powerful human suffering that comes with someone dying of dehydration and experiencing real, life-ending thirst. To over-spiritualize the Gospel and overlook the real suffering of human beings is a problem because the waters of eternal life may mean little for those who die waiting for the waters of basic earthly life.

In his book Seven Last Words, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominican Order, makes the keen observation that “because our bodies are 98 percent water,” we might better view “dehydration [as] the seeping away of our very being, our substance. We feel that we ourselves are evaporating.” To die from lack of water is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing ways for a life to end. And yet, millions of people face this threat every day.

Often people in the United States are shielded from the harsh truth that most of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. This same insulated population, especially those in city and suburban locations, regularly uses clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, clean sidewalks and water lawns. That said, the recent droughts in California, as well as the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia that left more than 300,000 residents without drinkable water, have made more people in this country aware of how precarious life can be without the guarantee of clean water.

Beyond our borders the situation is much worse. While we regularly accept the commodification of water in the form of plastic bottles purchased at grocery stores or the use of filtration systems to enhance the taste of our already potable supply, the business of water has become a justice issue for those who cannot afford to satiate the whetted appetites businesspeople have for profit. It raises the question: Is clean water a basic human right or a product for sale?

Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University, treats this question in her new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Treated as an overlooked subject for Christian ethics and social justice, water, Peppard notes, is really a right-to-life issue, because “fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more.” When we take clean water for granted, both humanity and the rest of creation suffer.

Jesus’ cry “I thirst” continues to echo in the lives of those hanging on the crosses of poverty and oppression. This Lent perhaps we can commit ourselves to rethinking the role of water in our lives, paying special attention to how we use and abuse it. In turn, we might reconsider our practices and discover ways we can become better sisters and brothers to one another and the planet.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: Stock

Thomas Merton on Ash Wednesday

Posted in Thomas Merton, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 5, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

“Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.”

In 1958 Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled, “Ash Wednesday,” which offers a reflection on the relationship between penance and joy found in the celebration of the beginning of Lent and the marking of our foreheads with ashes. Instead of me rambling on and on here today, I thought it would be good to share more from Merton himself. You can read the entire essay in Seasons of Celebration (FSG 1965), 113-124.

“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.

“There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security. The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence in spite of darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…

“Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before. The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.

“Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focussed on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”

The Sun Rises Over the Sinner

Posted in Prayer, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on August 23, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

sunrise-beach

Every Friday morning the church together prays the penitential Psalm 51 as the first psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the “Divine Office.”

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.

It can be easy to read this Friday morning confession of one’s guilt and sinfulness, a truth professed by all human beings whether they pray this ancient Hebrew prayer each week or not, as a negative and self-deprecating exercise in humiliation, loathing, and penance.

My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you,  you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.

It might also be seen as a cathartic practice of confession and acceptance, humbling one’s self before the Creator and acknowledging what we carry in our hearts that needs to be expunged.

That you may be justified when you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge.
O see, in guilt was I born,
a sinner was I conceived.

But there is something else that strikes me about this powerful psalm. It is, indeed, partly reflective of both those ways of looking at its being prayed, yet there is something more — something hopeful.

Indeed you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.

It is perhaps no coincidence that my brother friars and I prayed this psalm this morning as the sun rose over the Atlantic coast. Sitting in the chapel of the friary the beams of light shot through the window, the ocean breeze flowed through the window, joggers and bikers stirred in the distance, and the sound of coastal birds announced the day had begun.

Make me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones you have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all my guilt.

Like the sun that rises in the East, bringing all within our horizon into light, so this psalm shines light on the darker parts of our lives. It doesn’t do so with the self-flaggelating masochism that could wrongly be associated with confessing one’s sinfulness. It brings to light the good and the bad, the sadness of sins committed and the hope of redemption.

A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
no deprive me of your holy spirit.

There is for me a sense of hope and of honesty and of love present within this psalm. It flows from the outright expression of guilt, ownership of sinfulness, and confession of transgressions committed toward a prayer of petition that God might renew in us the heart created to and for love, so often turned off by the desire for fulfilled self-satisfaction.

Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.

Like the sun that rises each morning, this psalm appears on the lips of the members of the Body of Christ each Friday. And like the sun that rises each morning, we are reminded of God’s constant love, forgiveness, and desire for us to be more and more authentically human, which is to be more and more like Christ.

O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.

This is a prayer of renewal and hope. It provides the opportunity for us to stand in the liminal space between our selfish world of isolation and the conversio of Christian discipleship — the turning toward Christ.

For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.

God wants nothing more from us than to be our true selves, those women and men acting in accord with our authentic identity as created in the image and likeness of God. Our honest confession, petition, and praise is the desire of God, not other acts of sacrifice.

In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar.

Photo: File

Remember, You Are Dust: Lent and Creation

Posted in Lent with tags , , , , , , , on February 13, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Hugging EarthI’ve always been a little turned off by one of the two traditional sayings used during the distribution of ashes: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” It has, at first glance, seemed like quite a “downer” and a depressing sort of reflection. On the one hand, it makes sense that an expression and reminder of penance on the first day of the Season of Lent might have a depressing, or at least somber, quality. Yet on the other hand, a second look at this expression does indeed cause us to remember a deeply significant truth about our existence and humanity. We are dust, as Genesis 2:7 explains, because God formed humanity from the “dust of the earth.” This has some radical implications for how we understand ourselves and our relationship to the rest of creation.

As the second creation account expresses clearly, we are ha-adamah (“from the earth”). We are not something apart from the rest of creation or above the rest of creation or, in some particularly physiological or biological sense, any different from the rest of creation. As human beings we share the same elements and minerals as the stars and seas and lions and birds; we are made up of the very dust of the earth as the rest all of God’s creation.

Perhaps this Lent, amid these times of heightened awareness of the ecological crises of our age, we might make a concerted effort to be more aware of our intrinsic relationship to the rest of the created order. It can begin today as we mark ourselves with a sign of penance and recall that we are part of God’s creation and will return to the earth someday after our earthly lives have ended.

Maybe we could even shape our penitential practices to reflect a particularly attentive stance to the concerns of the rest of creation. Perhaps what we “give up” or “take on,” if this our tradition, might be aimed at doing precisely what this saying during the distribution of ashes beckons us to recall: remembering that we are earth and that to the earth we will return. What will do and how will we think in the meantime?

Photo: Stock

Reconsidering Our Ecclesiastical Priorities: Penance and Social Justice

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Reports out of the Fall USCCB assembly have been mixed, to say the least. News outlets and social-media sources have effectively reported on some of the more controversial statements, discussions, proposed texts, and documents to be the subject of consideration in Baltimore in recent days. To be fair, not everything has been negative. Take, for example, the USCCB’s interest in social media and internet presence of the church. On Sunday the USCCB hosted a gathering of significant Catholic bloggers that allowed for the bishops and those who were providing online content in a variety of forms to interact. The event included a panel discussion with clergy and laity who are actively engaged with social media today. The reports about this event from colleagues has been generally positive (by way of full disclosure, I was invited by the secretary for communications to participate in this event, but had to decline due to pastoral ministry obligations).

However positive the initial steps to explore social media and internet presence as modes of evangelization might have been, the news chatter has been preoccupied with some more disconcerting reports. The first was related to Cardinal Dolan’s presidential address in which he called for a more concrete sense of penance. Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dolan asserted that the Second Vatican Council’s call for penance has, rather than being taken up wholeheartedly, seems to have diminished from sight. He said:

What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.

He rightfully challenges us as members of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, to be aware of the need for consistent penance and, as we recall at the start of every Eucharistic liturgy, to be mindful of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” He continued:

And so it turns to us, my brothers. How will we make the Year of Faith a time to renew the Sacrament of Penance, in our own loves and in the lives of our beloved people whom we serve? Once again, we will later this week approach the Sacrament of Penance.

And we’ll have the opportunity during this meeting to approve a simple pastoral invitation to all our faithful to join us in renewing our appreciation for and use of the Sacrament. We will “Keep the Light On”during the upcoming Advent Season!
The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession. Next June we will gather in a special assembly as brother bishops to pray and reflect on the mission entrusted to us by the Church, including our witness to personal conversion in Jesus Christ, and so to the New Evangelization.

For the most part, this is a welcomed attempt to draw our attention the perennial need we have to be aware of our own individual sinfulness. Yet, what is more absent than present is the admittance and call for continual awareness of our collective sinfulness.

Contrary to Francis of Assisi’s powerful expression that human beings are to be reconcilers and peacemakers (see Canticle of the Creatures) — and Francis is of course the paradigmatic model of Christian penitence — this exhortation for the faithful to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year seems to miss the mark.

What the Cardinal does not seem to consider is the individualistic quality of such an act, one in which unity might be seen as ghettoized superficiality rather than an expression of genuine solidarity. My understanding of the lifting of the mandatory abstinence from meat throughout the year in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) is rooted in this very fact. Instead of something as trivial as dietary abstinence, the faithful was simultaneously challenged and empowered to engage in more constructive, solidarity-building, and meaningful forms of good deeds and penance.

It’s hard to see how the reinstatement of meatless Fridays will effect the spirit of penance Dolan genuinely and legitimately sees as part of the spirit of Vatican II.

Furthermore, what makes this suggestion controversial is that, some have argued, it is not the “people in the pews” who are in most need of renewed emphasis on penance in their Christian lives — God knows (literally) how difficult it is to live authentic Christian discipleship today in light of the various pressures from all sides and conflicting narratives that both come from within and without the Church — BUT, there is a need for our ecclesiastical leaders, especially the bishops, to demonstrate their embrace of penance.

There are manifold ways in which we could offer a litany of the things our bishops have “done and have failed to do” in the last decades and in recent years. The model of the Archbishop of Dublin and our own Cardinal Séan O’Malley in the penitential act seeking forgiveness for the abuse cover-ups in Ireland some years back is a good start. Yet, the US bishops have failed to do something similar.

Then there is the controversial text that, thank God, was not approved this week (despite it still garnering a plurality of bishop support). The proposed statement, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times: A pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy,” was a pathetic shadow of the true depth, richness, and challenge of Catholic Social Teaching. This was made most clear by the retired Archbishop (and former USCCB President) Joseph Fiorenza. According to an NCR article, Fiorenza publicly decried the draft text and noted that it “did not have a single reference, even in a footnote, to the bishops’ landmark 1986 pastoral letter, ‘Economic Justice for All,; which the bishops developed after years of consultation with economists and other experts. The letter addressed a full range of applications of Catholic social teaching to economic policy and practice in the United States.” The article continued:

“I am very disappointed, and I fear that this draft, if not changed in a major way,” will harm the U.S. bishops’ record on Catholic social teaching, he said.

“The title of this document is about work, and it seems you only gave one sentence to our social teaching … on the right of workers to unionize,” he said.

“One sentence,” he added. “It’s almost like it was an afterthought. But when you look at the compendium of the social teachings of the church, there are three long paragraphs on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.”

Those kinds of rights are “at the heart of our social teaching” on the rights and dignity of workers, he said.

Indeed this is most troubling. That the bishops would even consider a text containing such an oversight bespeaks some serious problems. On the one hand, it might be symbolic of the shift in the US episcopacy toward a political engagement with so-called “conservative” views that have been extraordinarily hostile to organized labor and the rights of workers in recent years. On the other hand, it might be symbolic of the general ignorance of the USCCB’s textual history and Catholic Social Teaching more broadly on the part of recently appointed bishops in recent years and decades.

That 134 bishops would still vote to pass such a text is halting. (The text failed to gain the necessary votes even with 134 yes; 84 no, and 9 abstentions).

The NCR piece continued:

“Why don’t we address [in the proposed statement] the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, beginning with Paul VI in Populorum Progressio [his 1967 encyclical letter, "On the Progress of Peoples"] and John Paul II, Benedict XVI: They speak about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots and the right to a redistribution — redistribution has become a dirty word, yet the [recent popes] have said that this must take place,” he said.

“There’s not a word about this” in the proposed new statement on the economy, he said.

“I fear that this will not be an effective instrument” for the bishops to address the current woes in the U.S. economy or the people suffering from those problems, Fiorenza said.

What is striking, and fearsome at the same time, is that the most vocal critics of this new direction are the retired bishops. Where are the current bishops who should know better? When the retired auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Peter Rosazza, asked the chair of the drafting committee whether an economist had been consulted — the disturbing answer was that none had! How did these bishops responsible for drafting a document on the economy propose to do so without consultation of economists, ethicists, and theologians?

These two issues to come out of the Fall USCCB meeting are indeed troubling, but we must not get too carried away with concern just yet. What this signals to me is the need for the Church in the United States to collectively and genuinely reconsider its priorities. What is important? What are the signs of the time? and How do we read these signs in light of the Gospel?

Photo: CNS/Pool

On The Seduction of Withholding Forgiveness

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Last night the Chaplain’s office at Siena College hosted its final of several “Froth and Friars” event, which is something like “Theology on Tap” meets open Q/A with the friars. Students of legal drinking age come to a social with a group of friars and have a conversation about theology, spirituality or any questions that the students might have for the friars. We had a good conversation about a variety of topics, including a discussion about Lent and what practices different people were embracing during the season. One person at the table discussed his difficulty forgiving others and that he had made it a Lenten practice to pause when something was bothering him and pray especially for the person that he was upset with, instead blowing up and getting angry with people as he admitted being prone to do.

This practice led to a rather honest and heartening conversation about the difficulty of forgiveness and the tendency so many people had to hold on to grudges and pain. I shared at one point that I believe that, beyond simply finding it difficult to forgive someone, there is a real temptation that all humans encounter, by virtue of human being, to withhold forgiveness and not let something go because there is something inherently pleasurable about being angry or upset.

While it sounds twisted — and, really, it is — it is also very human. The temptation, on some level, is a selfish one.  Withholding forgiveness is a decision one person makes to continue stewing and dwelling on some hurt or perceived transgression that redirects one’s focus from his or her relationship with another to focusing entirely on one’s self. It can be addictive to be so obsessed about what was done to me and to think about the ways in which I was wounded and how I deserve better and so on, that the option to offer forgiveness can even come to be seen as an injustice. “I deserve more, I deserve an apology, I deserve retribution!”

Yet, the challenge is for us, especially those who bear the name Christ in the community of believers, to forgive, to let go, to resist the seduction to withhold forgiveness. Jesus makes it so clear in the Gospels that there is no place in the Kingdom of God for dwelling on these sorts of matters; forgiveness is imperative and to live and love like God means that mercy always wins out — 70 times 7 times, cheek after turned cheek, to the point of the Cross.

It is difficult to admit how seductive, and ultimately self-gratifying, it is to withhold forgiveness from another. We so oftentimes want to become the economists par excellence of our lives — tallying and calculating the rates of exchange between those we meet, those we love and those we feel have hurt us. I believe that on some level, there is sinful quality to harboring resentment, dwelling on a past transgression or maintaining the self-appropriated title of ‘victim’ at all costs.

This is not to suggest that people are indeed victims and that injustices don’t take place, for they do and this is not a post facto justification for wrongdoing. It is, however, an invitation during the season of Lent (especially) to take a look at our own lives and practices to see how it is we allow ourselves to fall in (or jump in head first) to the pit of self-serving resentment that inhibits us from forgiving others.

Forgiveness is not just difficult, it is impossible as Jacques Derrida has said. True forgiveness, the event of that experience, only takes place when the unforgivable (which, by definition, cannot be forgiven) is in fact forgiven. But I believe that the true meaning of forgiveness comes, not in letting go, but in reconciliation. That is the Christian goal, something I’ll talk about a little more at another time.

Photo: Denise Mangen

Thomas Merton on Ash Wednesday

Posted in Thomas Merton, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 9, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

“Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.”

In 1958 Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled, “Ash Wednesday,” which offers a reflection on the relationship between penance and joy found in the celebration of the beginning of Lent and the marking of our foreheads with ashes. Instead of me rambling on and on here today, I thought it would be good to share more from Merton himself. You can read the entire essay in Seasons of Celebration (FSG 1965), 113-124.

“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.

“There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security. The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence in spite of darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…

“Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before. The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.

“Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focussed on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”

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