Reflecting on “Flow and the Christian Experience of Time”

Lexi Eikelboom’s interesting blog post on Flow and the Christian Experience of Time (Module 1, Class of The Rhythmic Theology Project) defines “flow” as

Flow is a perfect state of concentration without struggle. In flow, one is working on something with such absorption that one’s sense of time disappears.

She places this concept in conversation with the liturgy, in light of “O’Donnell’s conception of liturgy as disintegrating the barriers between past, present, and future so as to more tightly integrate them,” and then raises a number of questions to which I thought I’d try responding, although in a slightly different order. My responses focus on the Catholic celebration of the eucharist, “the source and summit of Christian life.”

2. what is the creative challenge in liturgy that we are attempting to creatively meet that might induce a state of flow?

Communion. The eucharist is a foretaste and promise of that heavenly banquet at which we will be in perfect communion with God and with each other. In this life, that’s quite a creative challenge!😉

It’s why we begin with a penitential rite, confessing our failings and seeking reconciliation with God and with each other. The latter is best evidenced in the Confiteor, with its parallel “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters” and “Therefore I ask blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” It’s why, immediately before communion, we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him how to pray; and then share a sign of the Peace of Christ that is not the world’s peace.

Another way to spell communion is love.

1. I have had plenty of experiences of simply checking out during worship and having my muscle-memory take over. In fact, sometimes I have to work hard to not let this happen and I suspect I am not alone in this. So, if it is the case that occasionally the opposite happens and we find ourselves in a state of flow during liturgy or worship, I think it’s worth asking what it is specifically about that situation that enabled an experience that might otherwise be unusual.

Ah, this is why liturgists care so much! Continue reading

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Lectionary Reflection: The Virtue of Outsiders

It’s so frustrating when the lectionary leaves out half the story!

Here’s what was going on in today’s first reading: Naaman is a king from Syria, who has come to Israel after his Hebrew slavegirl (looted in war) suggests to him that the God of Israel could heal his leprosy. He goes to Elisha (after having no luck with the king of Israel), who won’t even come out to see him, but tells him to go bathe seven times in the river Jordan and he will be clean and healed.

Well. The king is offended. He expected the prophet to come out and pray over his sores to heal them. On top of that, the Jordan is a muddy river, whereas Syrian Damascus was famous for its clear mountain springs: if bathing was required, surely the Syrian springs would be better than this second-rate foreign river! He goes off in a huff, intending to do no such thing.

But his servants, who have of course been dragged with Naaman along on this entire adventure, offer some common sense: if the prophet had told you to do something exotic and complicated, you would have done it without question. So why not go bathe in the Jordan – what can it hurt?

This is where the lectionary reading begins: Naaman heeds the wisdom of his servants, goes to bathe in the Jordan seven times, and lo! he is healed, just as the prophet said.

He goes back to Elisha, confesses his faith that the God of Israel is the only true god, offers valuable gifts in thanksgiving which Elisha refuses, and then he does something fascinating: he asks to bring home 2 mule-loads of earth. Continue reading

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Gossip and the Scapegoat Mechanism

[One of gossip’s functions is] bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information, like a secret or a negative opinion about someone,that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present. (emphasis mine)

This is a quote from Personally Speaking on how women & men use (and are stereotypically thought to use) language. The entire essay is worth reading, but this is the bit that hit me between the eyes.

In mimetic theory, bonding over against some other person or group is the constitutive characteristic of the scapegoat mechanism, which strengthens the unity of the ingroup at the expense of belittling and ultimately dehumanizing the outgroup. In mimetic theology, the scapegoat mechanism is a sinful and only temporarily effective mechanism for achieving unity and quelling a mimetic crisis, typically a crisis over group identity and norms; and Christ’s saving work is directed at subverting and undoing it — teaching humans that there is a different game they might play, in the words of James Alison.

I’ve always known that gossip was considered sinful — it’s mentioned as such in both the Shared Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. But it seems such an ordinary, banal, even trivial, even harmless sin.

But a connection with the scapegoat mechanism? Now I get it. Even aside from the objective harm that gossip might do to the gossiped-about, it harms the gossipers by means of the emotional thrill of scandal, the sense of superiority and intimacy based on disparagement and exclusion. It fosters factionalism and divisiveness, against which the Christian scriptures also preach. It accustoms the heart to that extra thrill, and accustoms the spirit to identify over against the other, instead of receiving our identity from Jesus.

When our communities are so deeply divided, when the very identities of “American”, “Catholic”, “Christian” are contested, it is especially tempting to gossip about the people on the other side, to trade witticisms at their expense.

Let’s pray for the strength to resist that temptation, and pray for the people on the other side instead.

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Thoughts on sacramental preparation in the Catholic Church today

Note: some of what I’ve written here is based on my studies, and some on my lived experience and general impressions as a first generation Vatican 2 Catholic. I welcome comments from those with a living memory of the pre-Vatican 2 church, or with expertise or contemporary experience in sacramental preparation.

Let’s begin by reviewing the sacramental framework held by the Catholic church. The seven sacraments (the number and precise set of sacraments was finalized only in medieval times, and was defended vigorously at the Council of Trent) are understood by the church today in three groups:
– the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, eucharist
– the sacraments of healing: penance, anointing of the sick
– the sacraments of the state of life: matrimony, ordination

One of the great liturgical contributions of the Second Vatican Council was the retrieval, from the early church, of a theology and praxis of the sacraments of initiation as profoundly related and normatively administered to adults in one celebration, at the Easter Vigil. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) has been called one of the great successes of Vatican 2. It recovered (restored and adapted) several preparatory rites from the church of the first millennium, along with the expectation that preparation would occur over a minimum of several months, and involve the parish community in some way (eg, by praying for the catechumens, and celebrating the preparatory rites at parish masses).

Although the liturgical structures are from the church of the first millennium, it is clear from the New Testament and from patristic sources that Christians have always received some form of instruction, or formation, before being baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being admitted to the Lord’s Supper. So sacramental prep for the sacraments of initiation has always been part of Christian practice.

But remember, RCIA in its current form is a new practice: less than 50 years old.

It’s also beating against a couple of older traditions. Continue reading

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Blogiversary: Five Years Old

Chocolate_cake_with_strawberriesLittle kids get excited when they turn five because that uses all the fingers on their hand. I’m pretty excited, too!

My top ten posts this year:

#1: Topics in Early Church History? – a perennial favorite among students looking for paper topics. I hope it’s been helpful!

#2: Mercy and Misogyny – an annoyed feminist reading of a passage in a brochure on the Jubilee Year of Mercy that the Catholic church has been celebrating this liturgical year.

#3: Natural Law and the Gender Bimodal – observing the world with 21st century eyes reveals that anatomy is outcome, not ontology. There is no gender binary. One of my favorite pieces.

#4: Bible Translations: Formal or Functional? – another perennial favorite, with apologies to those who rightly observe that this distinction isn’t a binary, either!

#5: Rape Culture and the Construction of Virgin Saints – the story of Thecla and Trifina through a feminist mimetic gaze. Another one of my favorites.

#6: Impressions from Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, and Philemon – from my summer project on Paul a couple years ago.

#7: Rejecting the Glamor of Evil – one of my foundational blog posts on mimetic theory.

#8:Erased, Silenced, and Distorted: A Catholic Woman’s Lament – a cry from the heart, occasioned by a passage from the first part of Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints , which I read with a few reading buddies this year.

#9: Hermeneutics, Suspicion, and Generosity – another perennial favorite, although I suspect this is because there’s little available online about a hermeneutic of generosity.

#10: Perpetua and Felicity – another feminist mimetic reading of another story of two women from the early church.

For the first time ever(?), my post on Models of the Church, part 1 didn’t make the top ten cut. Just barely, though: it was #11.

Three of this year’s top posts were written during the past year: that’s an encouraging trend! The remaining seven were also in last year’s top ten. Looking over what I’ve written this past year, I’ll nominate the close reading of a fascinating piece of devotional art in the Walters Art Gallery as a good post that didn’t get very much attention — if you missed it, please do check out Art, Co-Redemption, and Kenosis: Reading the Vierge Ouvrante.

My posting pace has remained slow this year, partly because I lost one of my favorite conversation partners last August. I didn’t realize how often our conversations had driven my blogging. There remains more going on in the world and in the church that I’d like to blog about and don’t find time for. But hope springs eternal!

Thank you, readers, friends, and commentariat, for your company along the way, and for celebrating today. Have some cake…. with strawberries!    😎


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Random musings after mass on this Feast of the Assumption

It’s not a holy day of obligation in my diocese, but because I had taken the day off work, I went to the noon mass today, which had about 4 times the usual number of attendees. There was a lily-ish white flower in front of the statue of our Lady. No musicians, so we sang a capella: the opening and closing songs were not Marian.

Listening to the first reading, I thought of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant, visible in the Temple. What I noticed about the last part of the sign in the sky of the woman with twelve crowns and the dragon with seven heads, when the child is born and taken up by God in safety, and the woman flees to the desert where she had a place prepared by God, is that this suddenly sounded like the story of Hagar, who was sent into the desert to die with her baby, to whom God sent an angel to provide water, and who eventually finds a place in which to live out the rest of her life safely. Hagar’s story is presented in elaborated form in the Qu’ran, and I believe that a re-enactment of her searching for a place in the desert is a traditional part of the Hajj.

I couldn’t remember what the gospel would be for the feast day, and I was pleased that it was the story of the visitation. When I was in high school, one of the catechists (a lovely irreverent woman from whom I learned that it was possible to be a devout Catholic with an irreverent sense of humor) pointed out that after the Annunciation, Mary was essentially a teenage girl who had turned up pregnant. And like pregnant teenagers to this day, she went or was sent off to a relative conveniently out of town. That made a lot of sense to me then. Today it additionally occurred to me that Mary might have made this visit to test the proof that the angel had offered her: that her older barren kinswoman was with child. I imagine her thinking, Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I’ll get there and Elizabeth will have no idea what I’m talking about; then I can relax and go back to my normal life. But if it is true — if it is, then… then at least I can ask Elizabeth, how do you cope with such a miracle? How do you reconstruct your life around such an intimate and life-changing divine action?

I imagine her planning what to say.. planning not to say anything, unless Elizabeth told her she was pregnant. And then, oh, then when she arrives, Elizabeth rushes outside to greet her and immediately confirms the angel’s message and speaks of the child in her own womb… and then it’s all real, and she is overwhelmed with joy.

The story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is one of my favorites.

During the sermon, when the priest was describing Mary as the vessel or the tabernacle of the Lord, I realized that’s not true, that’s not right. Those images present Mary as an empty space, in whose body Jesus came to dwell before being born. But Mary’s body is the locus of the Incarnation and the source of his human nature. The Creed says Jesus was consubstantial with the Father; but he was also consubstantial with Mary. It is of her flesh that his human flesh was formed. Mary is not just the God-bearer, but the human mother of the fully human Jesus: by the Holy Spirit, out of the Virgin Mary, he was made human.

For the first time I wondered, if Mary was “assumed into heaven body and soul”, which is distinct from the resurrection of the dead, then does that mean that she among all creatures will not receive a resurrected body after the Eschaton? Wouldn’t that be just like patriarchy, apparently honoring her above all others but then leaving her in a plain ordinary mortal body while everybody else gets a better one. Then I decided that a glorified body must be the same as a resurrected body, somehow, and felt better. Still, it’s interesting that I don’t remember ever being taught anything about this.

During and after communion, I was particularly aware of how, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we take Jesus into our bodies in a way that is not so different from how Mary held him in her body.

We sang “Hail Mary, Gentle woman.” Twice. At preparation and at communion. It is beyond me why, if you don’t have guitarists that have to be able to play a guitar song on a Marian feastday, you would voluntarily choose that banal piece of work instead of a traditional Marian hymn; but, ah well. We did chant the Doxology and Great Amen, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei (in Latin, even!), so that was nice.

But I sang “Hail Holy Queen” as I walked back to my car after Mass.

ps – Today is the first anniversary of the death of my dear friend Mark. I prayed for him during the general intercessions. If your tradition supports prayers for the dead, please pray for him; and for his widow, his mother, and all those who loved him. Thank you.

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But what can we do? For white people who feel helpless

It’s been a terrible week. Alton Sterling, selling CDs in front of a store with the store owner’s permission, killed by police. Philando Castile, stopped for a broken taillight, killed by police in his car with his girlfriend and her four year old daughter sitting right there. A peaceful protest in Dallas, followed by a sniper who shot and killed or wounded multiple police officers, and who was then killed by the remote detonation of a robot bomb sent in by police.

Massive peaceful protests across the country, too often met by an aggressively militarized police presence that provokes and escalates tensions. Police tactics becoming even more aggressive after dark, as we saw in Ferguson, including the use of teargas and smoke bombs. Protestors arrested and detained.

So what can we do?

First, recognize that your black friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and neighbors are more deeply affected by these events than we white people are. So give them space, cut them slack, be gentle around them, the way you would with someone who is going through a very hard time right now.

Second, if you haven’t already started to educate yourself about racism and white supremacy in this country, start now. The links at the end of this post should help.

Third, consider making a pledge to do one thing, every day, to work against racism and police brutality. One thing: make a phone call, write a letter, have a conversation, make a donation.

Call your legislators and urge them to support the Campaign Zero policies to end police brutality. Write to the mayor and police commissioner of the city you work in and say that you are willing to sit in traffic while protestors block streets because you support them. Have a conversation with another white person about how you came to be aware of racism and implicit bias, and what you are doing about it. Donate to a bail fund or legal support fund for arrested protestors. There are more ideas in the links below.

Do one thing, every day. That might seem like a lot. But wouldn’t you do something every day if it were your spouse, your child, your sister or brother who had been killed by police?

Christians, listen up: it is your sister, your brother. Do we mean what we say, or don’t we?

Things to Do:

Local Actions You Can Take Right Now: page 1 and page 2

What You Can Do Right Now about Police Brutality

What White Churches Can Do About Racism Aside from Just Praying

Things to Learn: for White People

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism

What White America Fails to See

I, Racist

28 Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors

Learning to Call Myself White

Things to Learn: from Black people

Memory, #BlackLivesMatter, and Theologians by Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, an African-American Catholic theologian

‘Soul Weary’ in America: Cell Phone Videos and Cycles of Violence featuring comments by Fr. Bryan Massingale, an African American Catholic priest

What To Preach when Blood is Running in the Streets, especially for preachers, by Rev. Wil Gafney, an African-American Episcopal priest

I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This is the Real Truth about Race and Policing

Will Racism Ever End, Will I Ever Stop Being a N____?”

The Test Case, specifically about Philando Castile

Please share additional links and ideas in the comments.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all [people] will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

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Feminist St. Agatha Wants You!

St. Agatha is one of those virgin saints from the early church that tends to be overlooked by many feminist-minded Catholics. Her story, like those of many other women saints, has been told through the male gaze by male hagriographers. So the emphasis is on her willingness to be gruesomely tortured rather than give up her virginity.

Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Sicily, where her relics reside and are featured in an annual festival in her honor. And there’s a feminist filmmaker who wants to retell her story.

Bernadette Wegenstein first became interested in the story of St. Agatha while doing a project on women with breast cancer. (Because legend has it that Agatha’s breasts were cut off as part of her torture, she is the patron saint of those suffering from breast cancer.) She was very taken by the festival in Catania, and the broad devotion of the people to their patron saint. She’ll be using live footage from the festival, as well as animated scenes of Agatha, in the film.

You can read all about it at the crowdfunding site — there’s a wealth of information there, and a short film in the “Updates” section as well as the one I’m linking to below. The deadline to pledge is the end of June, and they’re already at 92% of their goal, so they only need a little more help to put them over.

But I thought my readers might be particularly interested in one of the giveaways. During the festival, the faithful traditionally kiss the reliquary (in which the relics are kept) as a sign of devotion. For hygienic reasons, the reliquary is then wiped down with cotton squares. But because these cotton squares have been in contact with the relics, they are traditionally understood to be blessed. (I wonder if they might even be considered 3rd class relics? but maybe not, because of the reliquary in the way.) It is not permissible to sell these squares, but the project has been given 20 that they may give as thankyou gifts for a donation of $30. Only 3 of the 20 have been claimed so far.

So whether it is saints, relics, or feminist theology that is your thing, I encourage you to pop over and pledge to help support this worthy project.

St. Agatha, pray for us!

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Art, Co-Redemption, and Kenosis: Reading the Vierge Ouvrante

An intricate piece of devotional art at the Walters Art Museum captured my imagination this last weekend. This particular piece is carved from ivory, and is an example of a type of medieval art known as a Vierge Ouvrante, or a Virgin that Opens. Here she is closed:


Opening Madonna Triptych, The Walters Art Museum

This is an image of Mary, seated and robed in glory, holding on her lap not the baby Jesus, but Christ Regnant, also seated and robed in glory, with his right hand lifted in blessing and his left hand holding the orb of the world in place on his knee. The four-lobed aureole that frames him also encloses a chalice on his right and the tablets of the Ten Commandments on his left, signifying the New Covenant in his blood and the Mosaic covenant of the Law. Mary’s chair rests on a base that shows an unusual Nativity scene: Mary reclining on her childbed, Joseph bending over her in concern, while behind/above them (and probably impossible to see in this picture – it was very hard to see in the museum) is the Child and the animals that attended his birth.

This vierge ouvrante opens down the center line that you can see in the picture above. The entire seated figure of Mary opens, from the top of her head to the hem of her robe. Inside is concealed an ensemble of images that suggests the ornate retable of a high altar: Continue reading

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The last two weeks reading Friends of God & Prophets rather got away from me: I did the reading, and we had our Friday night twitter chats, but I didn’t manage to get the blogging in. I still hope to finish this blog series, but perhaps not for a while.

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