01 August 2016

The Rather Unextraordinary Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary

By tradition August is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for the 22 was once celebrated as the feast of her Immaculate Heart before it was moved to correspond with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. The feast thus would have been celebrated as the octave of her Assumption (Aug 15). Scripture connects these feasts, for Christ told us Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be, and Mary’s greatest treasure was the Kingdom of her Son. With her treasure firmly in Heaven, Mary’s human heart—along with the rest of her body—could not but be drawn up by God into the celestial abode.

Even the little insight into Mary’s inner life the Gospels offer reveals untold depths of love for God and a soul loved by God. Mary’s heart is full of grace and perfectly conformed to the will of God: I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. Her heart ever proclaims the greatness of the Lord and exults in God her Savior. The events of her son’s life, she contemplates and treasures always in her heart. At the foot of the cross, her heart was pierced with a sword—as prophesied—when her son’s suffering mystically became her own. Rightly then do we celebrate her most Immaculate Heart and long to imitate it.

But in light of the extraordinary super-nature of her inner life, I want to look at Mary’s quite unextraordinary visible life. 

After spoke her “yes” her “fiat,” how the heavens must have rung with celestial joy; Mary offered the perfect “Thy will be done” to God and the Word became flesh. But what happened next? what was God’s will? Did He draw up for her a Rule for consecrated life? Expect of her countless devotions? Did he ask her to withdraw from the world? Ask her to become a missionary, or start a ministry of service? … Quite unexpectedly, perhaps, No.

Well, then did her life’s expectations drastically alter? Did God ask her to call off the engagement to her beloved Joseph? Ask her to leave family and friends to live an unfamiliar life to prepare for this altogether new perfect God and perfect Man? … Again, No.

After she prayed “Thy will be done” most perfectly … the angel left. Mary went into the world to care for her cousin Elizabeth. She married the man to whom she was already betrothed (after timely intervention and careful explanation from the angel to Joseph). The Flight to Egypt would be tempting to consider extraordinary, but with so many refugees fleeing from war and persecution even today, that experience is sadly more commonplace than we might think. After the return to Nazareth, by all canonical accounts, their life was one most ordinary. Joseph remained a carpenter, and Jesus likely learned the trade at his side. Mary cared for the home and maintained friendships and family ties (it was she, after all, who was invited to the wedding at Cana; Jesus and the disciples were her RSVP’d +13). 

Even when Jesus indicates the crowd to proclaim the faithful his mothers and brothers and sisters, while Mary waited patiently, I don’t find this quite so unusual or saddening as is sometimes presented. All mothers watch their sons move out the home, take up new careers, and begin new families. Mothers do experience some nostalgia at the changes, but their hearts are so much more joyful and proud to see their children grow up, find their place in the world, and build new families.

So the most mystical and contemplative heart outside Jesus’, was so in the everyday life of a quiet, ordinary layperson. And so, too, are most of us to be. Mary’s greatest prayer “Thy will be done” should be the same for us. It is a dangerous prayer, for once God says “okay” to that, everything changes. But as Mary shows us, it’s not that most of us will get called to do great works by earthly standards, but instead called to have great faith living visibly ordinary lives. 

It means to the people who every day annoy us, we must be neighborly; that to the poor in our own cities who before we passed by, we must be merciful and generous with the same wages we made before; that we love our children because they are God’s children first, and we love our spouses because they were God’s love first; that we do our same jobs as an offering to God, and we consecrate the tools of our work and care for the household goods “as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar” (Rule of St Benedict); that we forgive ALL offenses, even and especially the little ones; we bear ALL wrongs patiently when before we might have indulged in some self-justification at being annoyed; we learn to treasure Jesus’ life in our heart by spending time with Scripture. To do these according to God’s will IS a major act of conversion; it is an incredible turning of the heart that the Fathers called metanoia.

It means learning to have a heart like Mary’s. In venerating, celebrating, and imitating her Most Pure Heart we learn what Christ meant when he taught “blessed are the pure in heart.” We learn to bear sacred fruit in our visibly ordinary lives by cultivating our most intimate inner life with God.

12 January 2016

Traditional Monkeys: Received Wisdom and "The Five Monkeys Experiment"

In which the pilgrim wonders at the strange misreading skeptics give a modern fable, pontificates about the discernment and value of Catholic Tradition and traditions, and sings along with Tevye.

The Pilgrim ran across this contemporary fable today:
The Five Monkeys Experiment 
The Five Monkeys experiment with the skeptics' moral
An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder. 
The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys. 
The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him. 
Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him. 
Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed. 
By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas. -Source of this version
The almost universal moral attached to this fable (which is apparently based loosely on a real study) on the sharing sites goes along the lines of "what sad monkeys in the end who don't dare to go after the bananas; the evil scientists killed their ambition and creativity. Ergo, traditions stifle ambition and creativity, are irrational, and the people who follow them are foolish."

But that's not really the lesson at all if you follow the logic of the story. As long as one presumes that the scientists would in fact continue to spray the monkeys with cold water when one attempts the ladder, the tradition holds value and is an example of received wisdom from the monkeys predecessors.

The real moral should be along the lines of:

"Traditions should be given the benefit of the doubt first. Assume that your ancestors passed on these cultural treasures as wisdom that we might avoid dangers and reap benefits. However, not being monkeys, we should ask Why does the tradition exists? If the circumstances of the situation have changed (eg. all the scientists are dead) THEN decide whether the tradition still has value."

This is relevant to pilgrims of all stripes in that it helps us to distinguish, evaluate and respond to both Catholic Traditions and Catholic traditions. Concerning the Traditions, none of the circumstances when the received Wisdom was first given have changed; the big ones being Jesus hasn't returned and His Church is still standing, therefor everything received from Him still stands as is. The Traditions that do allow for scrutiny and logical testing have all held up immaculately (Catholic pun intended).

That being said, there are some Traditions that are there "because God said so" borne of His revelation alone that cannot be tested as to the "why?" (male only ordination would be an example); we can extract some little 't' traditional reasons (eg. Male priests accurately represent the masculinity of Father & Son, specifically the Incarnate Christ), but ultimately the reasons are going to be because Jesus only appointed male apostles when he could have appointed females (guy wasn't exactly afraid of bucking little 't' traditions, himself) and the early Church didn't ordinate women. The condition of His revelation hasn't changed—and God doesn't change his mind—so the Church, like the wise monkeys, will assume there is Wisdom in what has been received until we hear otherwise.

But little 't' traditions do bear scrutiny, evaluation, and discernment. For some of these it is good that we have, and will continue to alter or eliminate them as cultural and historical conditions change. However, even a tradition that arose out of circumstantial conditions does not necessarily lose all value if those circumstances have changed. Traditions big and little "t" have value in that they connect us with our history especially when its a living history like the Church's. Matthew Newsome has made a great argument along these lines for the continued use of historical liturgical languages according the differing rites (Roman = Latin, Byzantine = Greek, etc) for example.

Ultimately, be wary of eliminating or altering 'T'raditions just because they are "old" and be wary of accepting traditions just because they are 't'raditions. Regardless, the tradition will always have a reason, frequently one with still pertinent wisdom, and should be given the benefit of the doubt. Test the Spirits, St Paul tells us, and when it comes to received traditions of the Lord's Church, you'll find they test true.