Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Saturday, March 13, 2004


This prayer is known as "Caedmon's Hymn" or the "Hymn of Creation', and is the earliest Christian poem in Old English. Bede tells the story that Caedmon, a Northumbrian shepherd, had long felt himself incompetent in the art of verse and allowed the harp to bypass him when it was his turn. One night, he fell asleep in the stable, he dreamed that a woman appeared to him and said "Caedmon, sing me something. He composed the poem and upon awaking, remembered the words. He became a monk and devoted his life to the creation of Christian verse, none of which has survived except this short work.

This image is from the garden of the
Catholic Cathedral of St Mary in Newcastle upon Tyne in England.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:42 PM
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GREETINGS FROM ENGLAND: Just got a very nice note from a reader who happens to be the Dean of the Catholic Cathedral of St Mary in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. It turns out that they, too, have a publication called Sursum Corda. The electronic version is "down" at the moment, but you can tour their very beautiful cathedral by clicking here.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:39 PM
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My God, I give you this day. I offer you, now, all of the good that I shall do and I promise to accept, for love of you, all of the difficulty that I shall meet. Help me to conduct myself during this day in a manner pleasing to you. Amen.

--Saint Francis de Sales

posted by Peter Nixon 2:05 PM
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Friday, March 12, 2004

Give us, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;
give us an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out;
give us an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.
Bestow upon us also, O Lord our God, understanding to know you, diligence to seek you, wisdom to find you and a faithfulness that may finally embrace you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

--Saint Thomas Aquinas

posted by Peter Nixon 5:01 PM
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SUFFERING: On Godspy, Fr. Lorenzo Albacete offers a moving meditation on the problem of suffering, taken from his book God at the Ritz. Here is an excerpt to ponder:

If we admit that all explanations concerning the origins of suffering are unacceptable, then isn't all suffering really innocent suffering? Isn't that the point, in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, of Ivan Karamazov's argument? We will do well to recall his words. Rejecting the consolation that at the end of history we will somehow restore the harmony wounded by a child's suffering, he cries out: "Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole truth is not worth such a price... I don't want harmony, for love of mankind I don't want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering... They have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission."

Who of us has never felt some sympathy for this stunning protest, echoing it in the deepest region of our heart. And that remains the question: Why this heart-rending protest? Who put it there? The rebellion of Ivan Karamazov is a least as mysterious as the suffering he decries. Human nature is not the origin of evil and suffering. Evil is something totally alien to the way we are made, to our identity as persons. The myth of original man and woman in paradise is far more revealing of how we are made than the evil and suffering that has been inseparable from history, as we know it. The fact that the "man and woman of prehistory" lacked knowledge of good and evil does not make them less human than us—it makes them more human. It is because evil is so alien to how we are made that suffering and death are so repulsive. We cannot imagine "history" without the struggle that brings about suffering, but deep within our hearts we hear a distant echo of what could have been, of how human life was really meant to be.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:29 PM
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LET US KILL HIM:It’s easy to read today’s Gospel and think it doesn’t apply to us. After all, it’s meant to be a criticism of the chief priests and the Pharisees, right?

Well maybe. It’s hard for me not to see myself in this story, a person who tries to seize possession of what has been given in trust. When the time comes to render unto God what is due Him, how do I respond? When, for example, I look at my resources to decide what I should give to the Church, to the poor, or to organizations serving the common good, do I think first of those needs, and then my own? Or am I more likely to look at all the “important” things that I have to spend money on and then, if I have something left over, offer it to God?

In my experience, the two homily topics that are most likely to generate grumbling in the pews and angry e-mails to the rectory are money and sex. People—and I include myself in this—tend to react rather badly to the suggestion that Christianity has some definite ideas about how we should use our money and our bodies. The idea that our bodies and our money are not, in fact, our own runs very much against the grain of our culture. But if you went through the Bible and cut out every passage that dealt with one of these two topics, there wouldn’t be much left of it.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once gave a lecture at a business school associated with a Christian college where he suggested that the Church should require all its members, including those who wished to become members, to declare their income in public. The idea was greeted with disbelief and even a little anger. What is more private than what we earn and how we choose to spend it? The fact that such suggestions are able to generate such anger is instructive, for it reminds us that Jesus said a lot of things that made people angry enough to kill Him.

Somehow we need to reacquire the virtue of Christian asceticism. I should add quickly that I am not doing very well in this regard. But it seems to me a battle worth fighting, even if the territory gained is often measured in inches.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:21 AM
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Creator of all things, true source of Light and Wisdom, lofty source of all Being, graciously let a ray of Your Brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally. Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations, and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, help in the completion.

Through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

--Saint Thomas Aquinas

posted by Peter Nixon 7:55 AM
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Thursday, March 11, 2004

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for your have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.

--Psalm 63

posted by Peter Nixon 5:49 PM
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MADRID: Jesus Gil, who blogs from Madrid, has some information posted on the terrible bombing there this morning that killed 190 people and wounded 1,400. This is the worst terrorist act in modern European history. Please pray for the dead, the wounded and their families.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:16 PM
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PRAYER Prayer is a funny thing. A lot of the time, it feels like you are sending out words into the silence, and wondering where they are going. It’s sort of like putting a message into a bottle, tossing it into the sea, and watching it bob on the water as it slowly vanishes over the horizon. Will anyone ever read it?

I’m reasonably regular in my prayer, not because I am a particularly pious person but because I am a very methodical one. It wasn’t easy at first to pray regularly because it required changing my daily routine and my wife will tell you that I tend to abhor such changes. As much as I believed that prayer was important for all kinds of reasons, it was hard to actually make it part of my routine. But now that prayer is part of my routine, it’s hard not to do it.

Of course, one of the hazards of this is that prayer can become routine. It shouldn’t be, of course, but it happens, right? You race through your list of personal intentions like you’re reading through the grocery list. You get impatient by the time you reach that fifth mystery on the rosary. You mumble your way through the Magnificat. The truth is that, on any given day, prayer is as likely to feel routine and dry as it is deep and profound.

But every once in a while I get what I call “seized.” I don’t know what other word to use for it. Suddenly I have this awareness of a Presence. It’s like you’re talking on the phone and you become convinced that someone is listening in on your call. Sometimes I’ll just stop saying whatever prayer I’m saying and I’ll just sit very still and silent and try to feel the Presence. It’s exciting and scary and eerie all at the same time, the mysterium tremendum and fascinas. I have this sense of being held very gently by something enormously powerful, something that could crush me to dust and yet something that loves me very deeply and passionately.

And then, as quickly as it comes, the feeling is gone. Sometimes I find myself shaking my head asking “Did that really just happen? Did I imagine that.”

I don’t know why, but I have the conviction that my routine prayer and these special moments of prayer have a relationship to one another. I think that even in its dryest, most routine moments, the regular practice of prayer is somehow attuning my awareness in ways that make me more open to these particular moments.

I’m curious whether any of you have had similar experiences in your own prayer life.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:56 AM
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I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

--Charles de Foucald

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Separated from Thee let me never be.
From the malignant enemy, defend me.
At the hour of death, call me.
And close to Thee bid me.
That with Thy saints I may be
Praising Thee, forever and ever. Amen.

--Saint Ignatius of Loyola

posted by Peter Nixon 5:09 PM
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HAUNTED: There is a crucifix that hangs on the wall above our kitchen table, which is generally where I do my prayers before heading off to bed. It’s from Central America and, with its multicolored design and triumphant Jesus, is certainly not the kind of crucifix that would haunt the dreams of Caravaggio.

But sometimes it haunts me. Sometimes as I pray I can feel His eyes upon me. Sometimes I hear a voice in my head saying “I don’t want your prayers, your sacrifices, your works. I want you. I want you wholly and completely. Give yourself to me. Don’t use your carefully crafted words to keep me at bay.” There is a fierce and terrible love behind this voice, but also a serene confidence, a skilled suitor who knows his technique.

“I can’t,” I say. “You don’t understand. I have responsibilities. I have a family. I have a mortgage, tuition payments, bills. I’m so torn. I don’t know what to do.” The voice returns, insistent. “Trust me. Give yourself to me and all will be well. I love those you love. They will be safe with me.”

“I’m weak,” I say, “I’m frightened. I can’t do this. Help me.”

How many conversations like this have I had with Him? Hundreds, maybe more than that. He doesn’t relent, doesn’t give up, doesn’t take no for an answer. He wins me piece by piece, cell by cell, atom by atom. Oh Yeshua, I love you but I am weak. Baruch Ha’Shem, Yeshua, Baruch Ha’Shem…

posted by Peter Nixon 9:37 AM
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PAGING MARCEL PROUST: Yesterday my daughter, her eyes welling up with tears, asked my wife: "Mommy, how come I didn't get to decorate a cupcake at Hannah's birthday party?" Hannah's birthday party was last October.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:37 AM
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O Teacher, Jesus, be favourable to your children. Grant that we who follow your command may attain the likeness of your image and in accord with our strength find in your both a good God and a judge who is not severe.

--Clement of Alexandria

posted by Peter Nixon 9:36 AM
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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

--Thomas Merton

posted by Peter Nixon 5:08 PM
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THE CROSS: A subtext to the controversy around The Passion of the Christ is the theology of the atonement that seems to underlie the movie. Many people--including many Christians--who see the tremendous amount of blood spilled in the movie ask "Why? Why was this necessary?" Sometimes they ask it about Mel Gibson's creative choices, but behind that argument lies a deeper question of why the idea of atoning sacrifice is so central to the Christian narrative. You hear the old question about how one can worship a God who demands the death of his Son in payment for our sins. And frankly, if I understood it in that fashion, I would have difficulty accepting the cross myself.

My own view is that the cross is a mystery to be pondered not a mathematical problem to be solved. Many theologians have wrestled with the scandal of the cross and come to understand it in different ways. The Church, in her wisdom, has not given a dogmatic stamp of approval to any particular theology (although the Church came close to giving Anselm that status at Vatican I, and one might justly see Anselm's as primus inter pares). If you read the sections of the Catechism itself on the cross and atonement, they hew very close to the words of scripture, inviting us to ponder the depths of meaning that lie in those words.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a reflection on the atonement that was the product of my own efforts to wrestle with it. It's more of a meditation than an effort to offer a formal theology. But for me, the central challenge has always been to preserve the unity of Jesus action on the cross and his preaching and ministry.

In any case, if you are interested in reading it
here is a link. (Scroll down to the post entitled "A God of Justice." I have a lot of new readers since last year, and I'd be interested in your views.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:00 PM
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THE BENEFITS OF A SECOND LANGUAGE: I am currently in the process of trying to teach myself the Our Father (or, I should say, the Padre Nuestro) in Spanish. I'm using the Spanish version in place of the English during daily prayer, and counting on repetition to accomplish the task.

One of the things I noticed this morning is a small difference between the two versions. The English version that we are familiar with says "Lead us not into temptation." But the Spanish version says "No nos dejes caer en tentación," which can be translated as "Do not leave us to fall into temptation. Now I have to confess I like that idea a lot better than the English version, i.e. the idea that without God's gracious assistance we fall into temptation rather than God "leading" us into temptation. The latter seems to conjure up images of a God who leads us into temptation and then whacks us when we give into it. Not a great image.

I'm not a Greek scholar, but my understanding is that the original Greek can best be translated as something like "do not put us to the test," which is also a little different than being "led into temptation." My understanding is that "test" in this case doesn't refer so much to our particular trials as the trial of the end times.

Lex orandi, lex credendi and all that....

posted by Peter Nixon 11:03 AM
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SAINT BLOGS: Rachelle Linner's take on Saint Blog's (which said very nice things about yours truly) is now posted on Commonweal's web site. Commonweal has also made a couple of major improvements to its website. The table of contents of the current issue shows the available articles highlighted in red. Those articles are also linked on the home page. They also have links to highlights from recent issues. All in all, a significant step forward in Commonweal's web presence.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:46 AM
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A Rodeo Cowboy's Prayer

Our gracious and heavenly Father, we pause in the midst of this festive occasion, mindful and thoughtful of the guidance that you have given us.

As cowboys, Lord, we don't ask for any special favors, we ask only that you let us compete in this arena, as in lifes arena. We don't ask to never break a barrier, or to draw a round of steer that's hard to throw, or a chute fighting horse, or a bull that is impossible to ride. We only ask that you help us to compete as honest as the horses we ride and in a manner as clean and pure as the wind that blows across this great land of ours.

So when we do make that last ride that is inevitable for us all to make, to that place up there, where the grass is green and lush and stirrup high, and the water runs cool, clear, and deep -

You'll tell us as we ride in that our entry fees have been paid.

These things we ask - Amen.

--(c)Clem McSpadden. In memory of Howard Manuel, Jim Moore and Zachary Vanwhy.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Monday, March 08, 2004

Dear Lord, at our feet lie dead Iraqis, dead Kuwaitis, dead Kurds, dead Croats, dead Slavs, dead Salvadorans, dead Americans, dead Palestinians, dead Israelis, dead Jews, dead children, dead Christians--dead, dead, dead.

We ask your mercy on these war-dead sisters and brothers. We ask for the same mercy for ourselves, for our failure to be your peace, to be the end of war.

Save us from the powers that capture or imagination so we think our only alternative is war. We know we cannot will our way to peace, for when we try we end up fighting wars for peace. So compel us with your love that we might be your peace, thus bringing life to this deadly world. Amen.

--Stanley Hauerwas, "Mercy for the War Dead," from
Prayers Plainly Spoken

posted by Peter Nixon 4:28 PM
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WE’RE NOT WORTHY: Today’s readings and the fact that today is the feast day of Saint John of God have me thinking about the topic of “worthiness.” That’s a word that pops up a lot in our tradition. John the Baptist says that he is unworthy to fasten the sandal strap of Jesus. At the end of the rosary, when we pray the Salve Regina we ask Mary to pray "that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ." During the mass, we thank the Father for “counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.”

We tend to be suspicious these days about the idea of “unworthiness.” It seems psychologically unhealthy somehow, this idea of beating our breasts and lamenting our unworthiness. And yet, it’s hard to escape the fact that some of our greatest saints are people who felt in their bones that they were “unworthy servants” of the Lord. What can we make of this?

I think the story of Saint John of God provides us a way through. In his early years, John was very much the breast beater. He eventually headed off to Africa to try to get himself martyred and was sent back because it was felt his motivations were unhealthy. He eventually became a religious goods merchant. After hearing a sermon by Blessed John of Avila, he began flagellating himself, beginning for mercy.

Blessed John of Avila met with him and gently suggested that this kind of penance was probably no longer doing him any good. He suggested that John tend to the needs of others. John went on to found a hospital to care for the poor and attracted wide renown for his good works.

I may be stretching this a bit, but I think that what ended up happening with John of God is that he moved from a sense of his unworthiness based on his own failings to a sense of his unworthiness based on his understanding of God’s love for him.

If I think, for example, of whether I am “worthy” of my wife’s love, I have to conclude that I am not—and not merely because I inevitably forget to remove the “line dry only” items from the dryer, thus shrinking my wife’s favorite clothes beyond recognition. Ultimately, my wife’s love for me is a mysterious thing that remains steadfast whether, on any given day, I am “worthy” of it or not. It is not something that, in the end, I have really earned. It is a grace.

To pray that we might be “worthy of the promises of Christ” is not, like John before his spiritual breakthrough, to pray for our own moral perfection. It is to pray that we might be fully opened to the stunning, overwhelming, inexplicable and entirely gracious love that God pours out on us and that we may be able to love like that in return.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:27 AM
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By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
the joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

--Dietrich Bonhoffer
(written in the concentration camp, shortly before his death)

posted by Peter Nixon 7:00 AM
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Sunday, March 07, 2004
SCENES FROM A COUNTY JAIL: It was a beautiful morning out at the jail today. My friend Bill, who plays guitar, was doing the music and he walked through the barracks playing the old bluegrass gospel tunes that he likes. By the end, he looked like the Pied Piper with a long line of men following him back up the hill to the chapel.

We had about 20 men, which is a very good turnout indeed for our little jail. I'm getting comfortable enough with the Spanish that I was able to do a few of the prayers in Spanish as well as English. Although I'm sure my Spanish sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to speak English, a couple of the guys came up afterwards and told me that they appreciated the effort.

For my reflection on the Gospel, I told a story I tell every once in a while about a man I met on the outside who was once an inmate at the jail and came to one of our services. It was sort of a turning point for him, and he subsequently got out and got into recovery (he's now the coordinator of his NA meeting). The kicker is that he got his son back, who had been in the care of CPS while he was inside. So it's a great story and I've found it really gives hope to the men, many of whom do have kids.

Well danged if there wasn't a guy there who was, in fact, in the process of trying to get custody of his kids after he got out. CPS has met with him and he says they seem pretty positive. His ex-wife is addicted to crank, which is a major problem in this area. In any case, he said that the story spoke to him and gave him some hope.

There was a young man there, named Luis, who is getting out in a couple of weeks. He says a lot of things have changed for him during this incarceration, which is not his first. He's coming to church more, which he hadn't done in more than a decade. And he's got a girlfriend on the outside that he's writing to. He said he hasn't done this much writing since grade school.

He said he wanted some prayer cards. Now we've got lots of devotional literature in the chapel, but I think he wanted something more traditional and I couldn't place my hands on anything quickly. But I grabbed a Bible and showed him the book of Psalms. I said "Whatever state you're in, this book has got something that can speak to where you are: happy, sad, angry, whatever." I showed him Psalm 91, which I thought might speak to him, but I certainly hope he'll read some others.

All in all, a good morning. I'd ask you to keep all of these men--and those back in the barracks who didn't come to the service--in your prayers.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:35 PM
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