In my “Hits and Misses for 2011” last week, I wrote of my New Year’s Resolution to learn patience. I am still patiently waiting for that to happen. But there are some other unfinished resolutions as well. My final post of 2010 was “Spread This Around: My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip.” In it, I wrote the following:
“I resolve in 2011 to make myself a better person by not setting into motion news based on rumor, innuendo, and half-truths. If I have news to tell, I will first check its truthfulness, and then check my motivation for passing it along.”
There were lots of comments. One reader told a story about a woman who confessed her tendency to spread gossip. For her penance, she was asked to bring a feather pillow to the roof of her house that night, cut it open, and let its contents fly away upon the wind. Then the next morning she was to go out and collect the feathers. “That’s impossible,” she protested. “My point exactly,” said the priest.
It’s a potent story, but don’t be misled by it into a presupposition that women are more likely than men to be purveyors of gossip. It isn’t so, and priests, among men, are also not exempt.
But the last half of my resolution for last year – to check my motivation for passing news along – proved to be the biggest challenge. Like everyone else, I am capable of self-delusion. If I am saying something about a person I dislike, I don’t always want to know my motivation. If I do know it, I don’t always want to see it. If I do see it, I don’t always want to face it. If I do face it, I seldom want anyone else to know about it. My own confessor – a priest from New York who is likely reading this post and plans a visit to me next week – tells me “Welcome to the human race!” I see his point, but I still want to repeat last year’s resolution. I want to know my motivations and admit them more clearly.
When I sin, I want to know that I have sinned, and why. It is spiritually self-defeating to simply dismiss sin with a trite, “God understands the human condition, and smiles upon us.” Fortunately, I have a confessor who never does that. Sometimes I imagine his frown on the face of Christ, and it motivates me to try harder. I think the most important part of “My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip” last year was this:
“I have come to know in a very personal way the harm that a rumor can cause, and I never want to be the source of such harm for others. I have come to know that a Church that reflects mercy and justice begins right here in my own heart and soul, and I invite anyone who agrees with that to join me in my resolution.”
The invitation remains open, and I fully expect I’ll be repeating it again this time next year – if not for your sake, then for my own.
AND A RESOLUTION ABOUT LOSS
When I was ordained a priest on June 5, 1982, I received a gift from one of my childhood friends who then died shortly after I was ordained. It was a framed reproduction of Fra Angelico’s magnificent painting, “The Annunciation,” and it was one of my great treasures. I had a central spot for it on the wall in all the places I’ve lived since then, except this one.
As I described in my All Souls Day post, “The Holy Longing,” however, every material thing I’ve ever owned and treasured became lost when another good friend died suddenly while I was in prison. This happens to many prisoners over time. After I grieved at the sudden loss of too many good friends, I also came to grips with the cold, hard fact that every material thing I’ve ever owned and treasured in this world is gone after 17 years in prison.
Losing everything causes a radical reorientation of all priorities, something for which I beg the Lord daily that none of you will ever need to learn firsthand. I remember once having a New Year’s resolution that I would try to be more “detached” from my meager possessions. Be careful what you ask for! Detachment, when forced by the circumstances of an unchosen life, can be heartbreaking.
Sometimes losses are devastating. The loss of freedom is devastating, and so is the loss of a reputation, of one’s standing in the world. The loss of loved ones is the most devastating of all. The problem with loss is that, once it is experienced, all trust for this life can feel broken and difficult to replace.
So then what comes next? What fills the void that trust once filled? I found that answer last month in the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) for the Third Sunday of Advent:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t about me in prison. It’s about Christ entering my prison. It has been my Epiphany to come to understand through loss that Christ fills the void in these empty places, and the loss of all trust in this life is rightly re-placed in Him.
So my resolution for the New Year in 2012 is to let the mourning of loss become the triumph of the Spirit.
It’s a tough sell to a world that measures success in the most material of terms. It’s an even tougher sell within me, however, having to witness the world of grace from within prison walls, at least for now. Hence, the resolution.
POSTING TO MY WALL
Most readers know that when I write for These Stone Walls, you all get to see the finished post many days before I do. I send out only typewritten pages. Our friend, Charlene, scans them for me and emails the post to Suzanne, our editor, who works miracles with her photo-journalism and editing skills. When I received a copy of my Advent post, “Down the Nights and Down the Days” in the mail, I was very moved to see Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation” reproduced within it. Then a nice TSW reader sent me a beautiful Christmas card bearing that same image.
Now, after all these years of loss, Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation” is back on my wall. Thank you! I just gazed up at it as I was typing this, and my mind’s overactive ear heard Frank Sinatra’s voice singing, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.” It’s nice having something so familiar back on my wall. Thanks!
The Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th figures prominently in this post. If the new translation of the Roman Missal has you missing the old and familiar responses in the Mass, consider some truly startling changes our ancestors had to adjust to. One of them was the very calendar we live by and take for granted. Until 1582, and a new calendar adopted by Pope Gregory XIII, New Year’s Day was on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation.
The calendar is an ancient device. Before the time of Julius Caesar, the year was divided into ten months, not twelve. We still have remnants of this ancient system in the names of the months. In Latin, September, October, November, and December mean, successively, the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months.
Since the time of Julius Caesar, calendar divisions have been based on the movements of the earth and the regular appearances of the sun and moon. A day is measured by a single rotation of the earth on its axis. A year is a single revolution of the earth around our sun. In more ancient times, however, a month was measured as the time between one full moon and the next. This measurement, called a Lunar month, resulted in a Lunar year of 354 days. The year ended up being slightly more than eleven days too short for a full revolution of the earth around the sun. So by the time of Julius Caesar, the seasons had shifted. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter ended up in the spring, and summer in the fall.
In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar fixed the calendar by abandoning the Lunar month and instituting the solar year. There were no weeks in the Julian calendar. The week, as we know it, comes solely from the Judeo-Christian tradition of rest on the seventh, or Sabbath, day.
In 1582, Pope Gregory instituted what we today call the Gregorian Calendar. It was a correction of the flawed Julian calendar in that it fixed all years divisible by 400 as leap years, with 29 days in February. This became adjusted again to reflect 28 days in February with a 29th day every four years. This year, 2012, is a leap year, and February 29 is a post day on These Stone Walls.
Pope Gregory’s revision of the calendar also changed the way we measure the passage of years. He instituted a system based upon the birth of Christ so that the years since were referred to in Latin as “Anno Domini,” meaning “In the year of the Lord.”
For almost 1,000 years – from the time of Constantine in the late fourth century until the institution of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 – New Year’s Day was March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. The year began as the life of Christ began.
New Year’s Day became January 1 only after Pope Gregory’s revision was accepted throughout Catholic Europe and parts of Asia. Pope Gregory’s revised calendar was adopted on October 4, 1582, and to fix the problem with the mathematics of time, the next day was proclaimed to be October 15. The year would henceforth end on December 31 – the end of the twelfth month which, before Julius Caesar, had been the tenth month.
Remember all this if a part of you is resisting adjustment to the new translation of the Roman Missal. It was especially a challenge for our friend, Pornchai Moontri, who became Catholic only a year-and-a-half ago. He spent a year memorizing the prayers and responses of the Mass, but in recent weeks he has had to re-learn everything. In the first two Sundays of Advent, Pornchai gave up trying to find the correct responses on the handy “Pew Card” we received, and just started responding “And with your Spirit” to everything, thinking he would be correct about 70 percent of the time. And I don’t even want to tell you what he did with the word, “consubstantial.” He has since, however, become very familiar with the revisions which he says he likes. Perhaps he became a bit too conscientious. Now he points out every word that I miss.
The point of all this is that change is a challenge – especially for prisoners. So another resolution for the New Year is to try to accept change – and the things I cannot change – with as much grace and serenity as I can summon.
REMEMBER, LORD, YOUR SERVANTS
Three years ago this week, on January 8, 2009, my friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus departed this life after a brief recurrence of cancer. Three weeks earlier, he wrote of the loss of another dear friend, Cardinal Avery Dulles. I wrote of them both at this time last year in a post titled, “In Memoriam: Cardinal Avery Dulles and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.” Here’s an excerpt:
“There are some whose loss leaves a void of such magnitude that it can never really be filled. Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Neuhaus earned the title of ‘public theologians,’ and the empty places where they once stood will remain with an aura of absence for a long, long time. There is simply no one quite like them in the Catholic Church in America or in the entire religious arena of the American public square. If you’ve looked at our ‘About’ page, you know that both Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus were the inspirations for These Stone Walls which came into being just months after their deaths. They urged me to write … “
So the credit for These Stone Walls – or the blame, as the case may be – goes to them. That is more true than you may know. Cardinal Dulles asked me to add “a chapter to the volume of Christian writings from those who were wrongly imprisoned.” So I did, and, thanks to a truly great Catholic editor in Australia, the chapter Cardinal Dulles called for is These Stone Walls. You would do a great service to the memories of these two men, and to my own heart that dearly misses them still, if you would help spread word of TSW. I also ask you to re-visit my post, “In Memoriam: Cardinal Avery Dulles and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.”
Meanwhile, I pray for the fulfillment of the Prophet Isaiah’s promise to us. May you know a year of favor from the Lord. May the Lord bless you and keep you in 2012.