Hierophanies

Back in my undergraduate career, I took a fascinating class on Religious Studies. Coming from a small-ish town in Minnesota, I had a yearning to hear about the world and how people lived; my upbringing was about as homogeneous as it gets (unless you count the occasional interdenominational Christian marriage as “diversity”), so I wanted to soak it all in; I ended up majoring in Global Studies and Spanish, after all.

After I had knocked out my homework for my required classes, it was almost something of a treat to dive into the study of spirituality and find common threads and distinguishing characteristics of various religious experiences around the world.

Surprising (or possibly, unsurprisingly, if you’re familiar with the academic world), this class came with a dense vocabulary book; terms invented or repurposed to define the through lines between different expressions of spirituality. Until today, one term in particular has stuck in a way that others haven’t: Hierophany.

A hierophany, simply put, is a bursting through of the divine or the spiritual into humanity. It is a melding of the “sacred” with the “profane,” or at least an interaction between the two. Some traditions are rife with them; it is not at all uncommon for some peoples’ gods to manifest in regular, frequent ways.

Now in Advent, I’m drawn to reflect on this theme within my own beliefs: What constitutes a hierophany in Catholicism? Where does God burst through into our very human existence? How does Jesus Christ meet us?

In some ways, I would almost argue that the term doesn’t even apply; if you believe that God is ever-present, is he really ever breaking through any kind of divide between the “sacred” and “profane”? If the God-Man came to Earth as a human infant, can anything human truly be called profane?

But let’s flip the script. Can anything be more accurately described as a bursting through of the divine than the incarnation? What about the Eucharist? While it’s true that God is always with us, that His Spirit dwells within us, we also profess a unique faith in the Sacraments. The Sacraments reflect God’s understanding of the very human desire for a tangible, material experience of the divine.

Sisters and brothers, GOD CARES FOR US. Even the imperfect parts of us that cannot believe without seeing! He gives us real matter, things that we perceive with our five senses. St. Thomas Aquinas is famous for his view that our physical perception of the world around us was an essential to experience and learn more about God.

If this is true, how good it is that God gave us His Son, who became man! How wonderful it is that Jesus gave us the Sacraments!

Last week, I discussed the “Three Advents”: The birth of Jesus Christ, his Second Coming, and Christ coming into our lives every day. The first two move us greatly. What inspires greater celebration than Christmas? And what inspires greater fear and awe than the Second Coming?

But how deeply are we affect by the Third Advent, where Jesus Christ bursts forth into our lives every day. He is present in Spirit, in Scripture, and in the Sacraments. Let us rest in His Spirit, soak in the Scripture, and avail ourselves of the Sacraments. As we reflect on his birth during the Advent season, may we also reflect on the ways he visits us every day.

The Three Advents

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in a silent retreat with my grandpa, dad, and two uncles. It’s been a Breen family tradition for some years now to visit Christ the King retreat center in The Other Buffalo (Buffalo, MN).

This was a particularly challenging retreat, for whatever reason, but it was also particularly inspirational: I felt empowered to enter Advent with a fresh set of eyes and grace. I’d like to share one of the core takeaways I experienced.

In a spiritual direction meeting with one of the priests on retreat, we discussed St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who spoke of the Three Comings of the Lord or the three Advents. The first was his Incarnation, in “flesh and weakness”. We are also told of the Second Coming in “glory and majesty” at the end of days. The middle and third Advent, however, is where Christ comes to us in “Spirit and power” every day of our earthly existence. Jesus meets us in the sacraments, in prayer, in the people we encounter every day. And this “third coming” is no less important than the other two! While Christ’s daily incarnation in our lives may not feel as momentous as Revelation and the end times, it is by no means invented: Jesus tells us in John 14:23 that, “whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

For me, St. Bernard’s Three Advents had a personal parallel. Every year, it seems Advent flies by. There’s the Advent that others may experience: no thought of the “reason for the season” whatsoever; pure commercialism and chores and cooking, and,  “Sheesh, I could use a vacation from my holidays.” Then there’s the “ideal Catholic Advent”, spent immersed in prayer and quiet contemplation, racking up devotions and novenas like someone’s keeping score (jk, love you all who do it well!). And finally, there’s the Advent that most of us experience: somewhere in the middle.

At the retreat this year, God spoke into this part of my life. He told me he didn’t want me to feel guilty for not having the ideal, but to strive for something greater than the mindless. Most profoundly, God asked me to reflect on how Mary, Joseph, and Jesus experienced the first Advent. Did they spend hours in quiet contemplation in the temple? That’s not the version I’ve heard. I was inspired to think of the Holy Family, making a home wherever they could, and ultimately celebrating Emmanuel’s arrival in a stable/cave. They were living a real life, just like we do. They were a real family, just like mine. God does not call us to rise above our family life to some sort of mystical state of prayer during Advent, he came for just the opposite: to redeem the human experience and to sanctify family life!

My guilt for not setting aside more time in prayer melted away.

Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is essential. Meditation and contemplation are wonderful. A mystical state of prayer is Catholic #goals. But many of us also live lives with very real demands THAT COME FROM OUR VOCATION. I am busy because God has called me to be a husband and a father. Since he has called me, HE WILL MEET ME THERE. When God calls us to our vocation, he is also promising to meet us there! For those who do not live the monastic life, our role models do not need to be the monks!

Instead, I felt the Lord calling me to reflect on how the Holy Family lived the first Advent: Christ’s quiet coming in the night. I felt the Lord calling me to drop the shame and instead seek for the moments where I could ponder Jesus in my heart. Mary and Joseph are my examples this season, and I feel free.

Praised be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

Christ the Victor

Today, I’m cheating by skipping ahead a few chapters in Revelation. I’m not sorry.

Get a load of this:

The King of Kings.

11 Then I saw the heavens opened, and there was a white horse; its rider was [called] “Faithful and True.” He judges and wages war in righteousness. 12 His eyes were [like] a fiery flame, and on his head were many diadems. He had a name inscribed that no one knows except himself. 1He wore a cloak that had been dipped in blood, and his name was called the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven followed him, mounted on white horses and wearing clean white linen. 15 Out of his mouth came a sharp sword to strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod, and he himself will tread out in the wine press the wine of the fury and wrath of God the almighty. 1He has a name written on his cloak and on his thigh, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

How does that compare with your image of Jesus? Maybe it’s better stated: How does that compare with your baseline image of Jesus? When you pray to Jesus, or proclaim his Gospel, are you thinking of a Jesus with fiery eyes, many crowns, a bloody cloak, and “King of kings and Lord of lords” tattooed on his thigh?

How do our different images of Jesus color the way we see the Christian life? When we emphasize suffering Jesus, are we more likely to expect or see suffering? When we think of Jesus’ gentleness with children and the downtrodden, I would bet we’re more inclined to think the Christian life is about service and self-gift. Does hearing about Jesus’ miracles make us more likely to pray for one in our own lives?

All of these senses logically follow from the subject matter. There are so many facets to Jesus (he is, well Son of the Creator) and consequently to our spiritual lives, since we are called to be imitators of Christ.

But how often do we reflect on that King of kings dimension of Jesus Christ?

I know that my prayer, confidence in evangelization, and desire to be bold all grow when I reflect on the above passage. Today’s readings (see, I still talked about them!) are all proclamations of God’s victory and faithfulness, and they provided just the right jolt of inspiration and hope for me during my early college years, where self-image and doubt were immense struggles. Jesus, in His powerful, victorious glory, became somebody I could aspire to be like and be happy to serve, and be proud of myself.

Does your faith make you proud of yourself? Does it give you self-confidence? It sounds silly to say, but I’ll say it anyway because it sometimes gets easy to believe this: Christ-like humility and a strong sense of self-worth are not mutually exclusive! In fact, a healthy self-image is crucial to a fully integrated life of faith! Where our imperfections and failures once may have crippled us, our worth comes from God and cannot be shaken.

We are called to be heirs to this glorious Kingdom and serve the all-powerful God who rules in victory over Satan and evil. That’s it. That’s the end of the story. Jesus Christ, the victory, riding in on a white stallion and laying waste to all that is not of God. I’m guessing that’s not your usual “prayer material”.

Take some time to reflect on Jesus Christ in His glorious victory today. I pray you let it mold how you view yourself and how you go about living out your faith.

Being Led > Being Content

R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

PS 23:1B-3A, 3BC-4, 5, 6

Today’s readings contain what is quite possibly the most well-known Psalm in all of Scripture. Psalm 23 has been used in all sorts of media: presidential speeches, blockbuster movies, hip hop and metal songs alike. Psalm 23 provides an easily recognizable religious reference, a comforting message, a clear, straightforward refrain. The desire for contentment, provision, and protection are ubiquitous, and align pretty well with our basic human needs¹.

In praying with the Psalm today, however, I felt that the Lord was calling us beyond the easy reading. We are not guaranteed access to the LORD’s protection and provision. Our calling does NOT boil down to the platitude, “We just need to see where God already is in our lives and be content with our current life circumstances.” I learned not be jealous and/or greedy in kindergarten; I believe the Holy Spirit has more for us here.

Today I took some of my GRE study–inspired reading comprehension skills and broke down the refrain: “The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”

 

Results: I shall want nothing. I will rest beside still waters and verdant pastures, His rod and staff give us courage.

Prerequisites (aka what WE need to do): The LORD must be our shepherd. We must be guided. We must be anointed.

 

Take a look at that second part! So often we focus on the results, without asking what we need to do! Part of the reason I believe this passage has gained so much traction in popular culture is the hope for deliverance. It’s not wrong to ask to be spared or delivered, but will it have any effect if we don’t meet the conditions or put ourselves in the position to receive it? Miracles are wonderful gifts from God but are only truly useful if our hearts are primed for relationship with Jesus (see: Nazareth, Mark 6).

So how do we prime our hearts for the LORD? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we get the God of the Universe to be our shepherd, give us all that we need, and protect us?

By being sheep, of course. Shepherds can only be shepherds to sheep. In reading through Psalm 23 today, Jesus spoke clearly and powerfully to my heart: “These words are not about being content or finding good in your life as it is, these words are about being led.”

Are we willing to follow the LORD? Do we ask where we should go? Do we trust that his paths lead to verdant pastures, or do we stick to our own, temporarily comforting paths and habits? Where in your life can you ask Jesus to lead you? Where are you currently trying so hard to find your way, and have yet to really pose the question to Him?

Jesus’ promise is real, it is beautiful, and it is comforting. He DOES lead me to verdant pastures. He DOES give me rest. He DOES protect me from my enemies and from fear. We WILL dwell with the LORD.

All he asks? “Come, follow me.”

 

  1. Yes, yes, Maslow’s hierarchy is outdated and problematic in many of its forms. Just making a point here.

Counting the Cost, Reaping what He Sows

A brief one for you today:

 

Today’s readings provide some pretty sobering material for reflection. Phrases like “counting the cost” and “poured out like a libation” rarely make for light reading, no matter the context.

Yet it’s important to read past the easy interpretation of St. Paul and Jesus’ words as grim resolve or cynical fatalism. Look for the positive language; phrases like “children of God without blemish,” “rejoice and share my joy,” and “successfully oppose”.

During a recent small group session, one of the other men their talked about the challenges of having children who could, at some point in their life, stray from the faith. Our conversations moved from their to sharing our faith in general. How can we, imperfect men (and women of course, but you all weren’t at the small group!), make a compelling case for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

One of the key themes we settled upon is sharing our excitement. What about our pursuit of the Kingdom of God excites us? How does the Lord bring us joy? What value do we see that makes “counting the cost” and “pour[ing ourselves] out” worthwhile?

Take some time over the rest of the week to reflect on the gifts from God that bring you joy. Try to share those things that make you happy. They may be simple hobbies or pleasures in your day-to-day life, or you might think of how Jesus has delivered you from significant sin or suffering. Take time to think of how the Lord makes your life better, and can do so every day

Then don’t hesitate to share it.

 

Kingdom at hand

In looking at Today’s Readings, I was struck by the universality of the Word. Simply put, the message of Jesus Christ is meant for every human being: The Kingdom of God is at hand!

But how much of our lives are spent waiting for the right conditions to live/move/have our being?

“Once I have…”
“When I’m finally able to…”
“If someone would only just…”
Some of those sentences hurt for me to type, because they ring so true. I feel like I’ve spent years deferring, blaming, excusing, or avoiding. I’ve yearned to burst forth like a bolt of lightning, chasing down my dreams, passions, and callings with holy excitement and energy, yet I often seem to find some little hindrance or struggle to which I give too much power and pump the brakes.

“But I’m so tired…”
“I’ve got these other responsibilities…”
“I wish I could afford to…”

To be fair, there are seasons of life where waiting is the calling. For example, my life as a husband and father to one toddler and potential Christmas/New Year’s newborn is not necessarily the time to travel the world and broaden my horizons. These days, it’s more like running in circles around our apartment hallways and babyproofing my horizons. But a life season of patience does not mean we are waiting, or that we are hamstrung, ineffectual.

Jesus told us, and continues to tell us, that the Kingdom of God is at hand! Right now! God is calling me, calling you, to greatness (in His eyes, not the world’s). All of the excuses and rationalizations I’ve listed above betray one big need in my life: my faith in God needs to grow!

Two variations of one of the most profound messages I heard during my time as a campus minister come to mind: 1) God does not call the equipped, he equips the called, and 2) God will always give you enough time, energy, and resources to pursue His calling for you. If it’s His calling in your life. He will make it work. We need not wait; we ought to act. If you truly believe that Jesus Christ brought about the Kingdom of God, brought Death to its knees, and brought everlasting redemption, WHY WOULDN’T YOU ACT?!

St. Paul tells us today that we have Jesus Christ has given everyone on earth both a Word and a Mission. We are to receive and preach “the inscrutable riches of Christ.”

The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Act like it. Then go tell everyone.

Living in the Spirit, Following the Spirit

Brothers and sisters:
If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.
I warn you, as I warned you before,
that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh
with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.
—Galatians 5:18-25

Do you ever catch yourself reading a Scripture verse and thinking, “Okay that seems obvious”? Or maybe a better way to phrase the phenomenon is glazing over a verse here or there because it just seems too…straightforward? Easy to digest? Unremarkable?\

Sure, you do. We all do, we all know the feeling. It’s happens all the time when our minds wander, and sometimes even when you’re pretty well focused. That happened to me with today’s first reading.

Luckily, I caught myself this time. Do I really think St. Paul was redundant? Should I really write him off as an over-communicator? Of course not.

So I went back to the last verse of the reading: If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Straightforward, no? Yet what happens if we break this verse down grammatically? If I believe and profess that the Bible is the written Word of God, then every sentence, and possibly every word, should get this treatment. There are so many “levels” on which you can read Scripture, and God can speak to you through all of them! Read a chapter for the story, or meditate on a single sentence or passage a la lectio divina; the Spirit speaks either way.

So. Back to today’s verse: If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

Why wouldn’t somebody be doing both? Why does it need to be stated?

As Catholics, what does it look like to live in the Spirit? The most obvious response is being a regular participant/recipient of the Sacraments. Jesus instituted the Sacraments as vehicles of grace, aka the gifts of the Spirit. Regular Mass-goers, you can check this one off: you, in a technical sense, could be considered to be living in the Spirit (if you go to Confession, and if you are not in a state of sin; big ifs)

If we’re living in the Spirit, it does not mean that we are necessarily following the Spirit. Participating and receiving do not mean that we are listening. If we are to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, do we need to receive the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. Is that enough by itself? Not at all.

“Following the Spirit” can have two related meanings: discerning God’s will in your life (i.e. following as a guide) and acting in accordance with His law (i.e. following as a rule). How often do we participate, but do not seek time in prayer for the Spirit to speak on a personal life decision? How often do we pray before a difficult conversation? A meeting at work?

These two elements, living in the Spirit and following the Spirit, are symbiotic and necessary. The grace of the Sacraments will flow into and inform our prayer and actions, and our prayer and actions inspire a greater desire for the Sacraments.

In addition to seeking out ways you can more deeply live in and follow the Spirit in your life, I ask that you say a special prayer for those who attend Mass regularly, but God does not have a central place in their lives otherwise. Pray that the Spirit would enkindle in them a new fire of love for Christ.