Saturday, September 29, 2018

St. Michael the Archangel

The St. Michael Prayer was recently reinstituted at the end of Mass in my diocese. The prayer used to be recited at the conclusion of every Mass until the revisions in the 1960s. Even without it in Mass, it seems cradle Catholics know it as well as they do the Hail Mary, and I’m scrambling to find it written in the bulletin to follow along. It feels like one more cultural thing I’m missing out on. 

It’s taken me a long time to get some sort of grasp on angelogoy, being so speculative. I’ve grown to believe in and appreciate my guardian angel, and I understand the appeal of the battling defenders against dark forces. But it still feels funny to end Mass by mentioning the evil spirits “who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Michael means “Quis ut Deus?” or “Who is like God?” It is a rhetorical question, implying that no one is like God. It is also the rallying cry of the Army of God. Satan tried to be like God, and he and his followers were kicked out of heaven. Satan promised Adam and Eve they could be like God, and that led to the Fall. Who is like God? No one. And Michael fights those who say otherwise. 

In the West, St. Michael is called an archangel. In the East, he is called a taxiarchos, or brigadier. Both terms honor him as a high-ranking leader. He is the protector of the Jewish people and later the Church. In Revelation he leads the forces against Satan. He really puts the militant into the Church Militant. 

In the early Church, Michael was seen more as a healer. By the mid-fourth century, he was depicted more as a warrior. As the highest of the lowest rank of angels, the Church credits him with several roles: he is the leader of the Army of God against evil forces, he is the angel of death who leads souls, should they be judged as such, to heaven, and he is the patron of the Church.

Michaelmas is on Sept. 29. It is also considered the Feast of the Archangels, Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

An Apology isn't Repentance

Something that Christianity teaches well is penance. But penance is not practiced well.
For most Christians, penance is giving up sweets in Lent or saying a few Hail Marys after confession. It’s a brief, solemn gesture. And that’s a start. Some Christian traditions don’t even have that. The Orthodox at least have stricter periods and rules of fasting. Penitential seasons like Advent and Lent force the Church into confront penance as a collective. We go into a more somber mode as a community. 

But do we actually repent as a community? It was recently Rosh Hashanah. In Judaism, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant to be days of reflection and atonement. Atonement is paying the price of a transgression. It involves repentance, a contrite expression of remorse of the transgression. As Christians, we don’t focus so much on atonement, because we believe we cannot fully atone for our own sins; Christ atoned for us. So instead, there is the focus of repentance. We must sincerely remorse over our sins and want to receive atonement.
In a way, this was a radical, liberating teaching. There is no way to fully atone, and we don’t have to. We surrender to Christ who atones for us. Of course, true contrition and true surrender are not easy; it is a liberating yet difficult path.

But the problem comes when these ideas are applied in worldly matters. I transgress against my neighbor; I apologize; he in his mercy forgives me; all is well. But what if I’m not sincerely sorry? What if my apology was just a manipulative way to get out of trouble, knowing that he is morally bound to accept my remorse and show mercy? Then I can transgress again, without fear of consequence, because the onus is on my neighbor, the victim, to be merciful.

This is a common accusation thrown at Christians. That they can act hypocritically and immorally and get away with it as long as they say they’ve had a turn of heart and that they’re sorry. We are supposed to accept apologies, because we are called to be merciful, and we can’t know whether the apology is sincere or not. We see it over and over and over in the public sphere. The cycle of outrage, demand for a statement, a non-sincere apology, a brief retreat from the limelight, then a return to Hollywood, Washington, or whatever industry he came from. And we have to accept it; we have to forgive, because he apologized, and because it’s our duty to show mercy.

This is where I think penance is good. Our paltry penances rarely atone for our sins. But they do demonstrate actions. We can’t fully atone, but surely we should try to. What use is words without action? If someone sincerely repents, then they should take up their cross, not in punishment, but willingly. Let the turn from sin have a demonstrative turn. 

For the person whose apology is insincere, penance might work as punishment, a deterrent to bad actions. For the person whose apology is sincere, penance solidifies the determination to change one’s habits, to turn from sin in a demonstrative way. 

The Church is going through a chaotic time right now. Her hierarchy has done horrendous things. Bishop Knestout of Richmond lay down his staff, removed his ring, and lay prostrate in an act of penance that I found quite moving. Some laity feel called to repent as a Church—periods of community fasting, prayers, adorations, Mass intentions of repentance. I think those feelings are a valid and beautiful response, especially when it rises up from the laity who want to atone as a whole Church. Some tell them not to do so, that it’s not a laity problem; it’s a bishop problem, and the bishops shouldn’t make the laity feel guilty. Others tell them not to do it because it doesn’t actually accomplish anything, that it’s just empty gestures that don’t offer full atonement or bring justice to victims. But penance not about being made to feel guilty or bringing justice. It’s about expressing contrition, not to be seen and have one’s apology accepted, but for one’s own benefit. God offers the atonement. God offers the mercy. We offer the repentance.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

St. Richardis

St. Richardis was born around 840 in Alsace into a noble family. In 862 she married Charles III (Charles the Fat), Charlemagne’s great-grandson. From all accounts it was an unhappy marriage. The couple remained childless. 

In 881, Charles became Holy Roman Emperor, with Richardis crowned empress. His reign was plagued by Norman invasions and his growing paranoia. In 887, he accused Richardis of having an affair with his archchancellor. He also claimed they had never consummated their marriage and demanded a divorce. Richardis submitted to a trial by fire and survived, subsequently proving her innocence. 

After the ordeal, her family removed her from Charles’ home for her safety. She returned to Andlau Abbey in Alsace, which she had founded in 880. She lived a life of charity and was the lay abbess to religious houses in the region.

Legend says that one day she came upon a mother bear grieving over its dead cub. She picked up the cub and it returned to life. The mother and cub remained devoted Richardis after the incident. Andlau Abbey used to keep a live bear in honor of the story, and it allowed free board and passage to passing bear-keepers.

St. Richardis died on September 18, 895. She is the patron of protection against fires. She is often depicted as both an empress and a nun, with burning wood and a bear nearby.