Ash Wednesday — 2018

Joel 2:12:18
2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2
Matthew 6:1- 16-18

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same every year. Joel calls for fasting and penance accompanied by assemblies in which the priests would pray for mercy. He concludes with an assurance that God is moved by these things to have pity on his people. Paul starts with the same premise as Joel: the people have sinned. They need to be reconciled to God, and this is the time to do it. In today’s context, the Church views Lent as Paul’s “acceptable” time. In the gospel, Jesus refers to the elements of prayer and fasting called for by Joel, and adds almsgiving. He takes for granted that his followers will do all three, saying, “When you give alms, … When you pray, … When you fast, ….” His command is that we not do it for our own glory, but, as St. Paul told the Corinthians in last Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 10:31 — 11:1), for the glory of God.

We don’t undertake our Lenten practices so we can congratulate ourselves on how much we’ve done, much less so others will be impressed. We do these things — extra prayer, extra fasting or self-denial, extra almsgiving — because as sinners we need to turn away from evil and do good, to develop habits of doing good, and to join our penance to Jesus’ supreme self-denial on the cross for our redemption and that of the world.


Sunday Scriptures — OT B 06, Feb. 11, 2018

I think that listing the assigned scriptures at the beginning can make it easier to relate them to one another, so I’m giving it a try.

First Reading — Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46

Second Reading — 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Gospel — Mark 1:29-39


Leprosy, diagnosed by a priest, excluded a person from contact with the community of Israel. A cure also had to be diagnosed by a priest, and a sacrifice was offered when the cure was confirmed. Jesus was not concerned with the prohibition of contact with a leper, but cured him by touching him and speaking an effective word of healing. To enable the man to return to the community, Jesus tells him to follow the rules of the Law to have his cure certified. There are three aspects that invite some reflection.

First, Jesus in effect trades places with the leper. The reading tells us that the result of the leper’s proclamation of what Jesus had done, the crowds that mob Jesus when he enters a town make it necessary for him to stay in deserted places, as the leper previously had to, while now the leper is free to go around in the towns and villages. Jesus also trades places with us. He takes away our sins by dying on the cross in our place. We are the ones who deserve to be punished by death, but Jesus accepted death for our sake.

Second, the leper feels compelled to spread the good news of what Jesus had done for him. In last week’s second reading (1 Corinthians 9:16-23, esp. 16-17), St. Paul stated that he also felt obligated to announce the gospel. Do we feel a similar compulsion to share the good news about Jesus? We don’t need to buttonhole strangers in public and tell them all about it, or pass out tracts on the subway. In fact we’d probably do better not to do that. But do we want to take advantage of chances people give us to speak of our faith. Do we show the joy of a redeemed life?

Third, Jesus heals the leper, and he wants to heal us spiritually. Lent — which began as the time of final preparation of catechumens for Baptism, which was conferred at Easter — soon also became the time for notorious sinners to perform public penance in preparation for being reconciled with the Church by the bishop at Easter. Now the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available all year, and for lesser sins as well as notoriuos ones. But Lent is still a good time for us to do penance for our sins, using the three practices mentioned in Matthew 6 (read on Ash Wednesday) — prayer, almsgiving, and fasting — to a higher degree than during the rest of the year. Jesus wants to heal us of any “spiritual leprosy” we have incurred; and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is his chosen means for doing so, especially for serious sins, which separate us from God. After the encounter with Jesus in the sacrament, people have a feeling of joy and relief, as did the leper.


St. Paul’s words can also help us think about our approach to Lent. Like everything else, Lent is for the glory of God. This ties in with the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, which tells us not to do good things in order to win praise. If we make a show of it, there is no merit in it for us. We are to pray, fast, and give alms as quietly as possible. When we do that, our acts are done for the glory of God, not for our own glory. Even our own sanctification, which these things lead to, is for the glory of God. Beyond that, our quiet holiness gives an example of a life well lived which can help lead others to goodness as well.

Judy Shepard & ADL: “The Fight for Justice”

On Tuesday evening, January 30, I attended a program titled “The Fight for Justice with Judy Shepard” sponsored by the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League. After a brief video about Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, Robert Trestan, the Regional Director of ADL interviewed Matt’s mother, Judy Shepard, who has been crusading for equal rights since the death of her son.

She spoke about Matt’s personality. He dressed in a preppy style, which was not typical for 1990’s Wyoming college students. He had strong opinions, and could be argumentative. He liked theater (played the younger brother, Wally, in “Our Town,” for example), thought he could sing, but he couldn’t. He was only 5′ 2″ tall, and very slight.

She sees the current situation in our country with respect to minority rights, including LGBTQ, as a retreat from the progress of the previous approximately two decades. But she doesn’t think the current expressions of prejudice indicate new feelings. She believes that the election of Barack Obama gave a focus and increased intensity to long-standing bigotry. Then with the election of Donald Trump, people felt free to express those feelings in virulent and sometimes violent ways.

Judy Shepard wrote a book titled The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. Robert Trestan said that he had brought three copies with him, from a supply that they have in the ADL office, adding that the book is now out of print. (I’d guess that used copies are available on line.) After the event I mentioned to Mrs. Shepard how moving I had found “The Laramie Project,” and that the element of  denial which was shown creeping in by “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” Then I approached Robert Trestan and asked if the copies of The Meaning of Matthew were available for purchase. He replied that they were not, but he would give me one. A few moments later it occurred to me to ask Judy Shepard to autograph my copy of the book, which she graciously did.

When asked what we should do now, she said the most important thing to do is vote.

All in all, it was an inspiring evening, a valuable reminder of what is at stake in the fight against hatred.

Four Days at the Monastery — Winter 2018

The week of January 7 looked good on my calendar for a visit to the monastery. Sunday and Monday were the last two days of Christmastide in the church calendar — Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord. Then “Ordinary Time” resumes. My own calendar was open — once I rescheduled a visit to bring Communion to a shut-in — until a meeting of the Task Force Against Discrimination on Thursday evening. The guest master said my dates were fine (and I’m “always welcome”), and in fact I was the only guest after Monday morning.

Of course, the monastery was still decorated for Christmas when I got there Sunday afternoon: immense Christmas tree in the chapter room (one of the older monks said it was their best ever), nativity set with fairly small figurines in the church. wreaths in windows and on pillars, plants in front of some statues in corridors, tables pushed together in the center of the refectory instead of along the sides. I have pictures, and if I can figure out how to upload them, I’ll add a few.

I brought along a book titled “A Retreat with Fr. Cedric,” by Father Cedric Pisegna, C.P, who had given a mission at my parish in October. It was very down to earth and easy to read. It identified various areas where people might need to change, explored possible reasons for the problems and steps toward improvement. Somewhat to my surprise, I got through the 219 pages with ease, and I gained some good insights and ideas. Now all I have to do is follow through.

As usual, I also brought some “secular” reading for breaks between the retreat book. This time it was a book on medieval political philosophy by Francis Oakley, “Empty Bottles of Gentilism.” It is the first of three volumes in which he develops the point that the middle ages saw significant development of the idea of consent of the governed limiting the power of kings. The Renaissance didn’t recapture the idea democracy full-blown from the Greeks and Romans. I had already read most of it as my dinnertime “table reading” at home.

One of the monks mentioned at dinner on Sunday evening that the freshmen were being required to read “Democracy in America in their introductory humanities course. It’s about time I read it myself, so I went to the college bookstore to buy it, but it wasn’t there. It turns out they only read certain chapters, not the whole book. But while I was looking among the authors with names beginning “To,” I noticed “The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Short Stories,” by Tolstoy, and bought it. There was enough time for me to read the main story, as well as to complete the retreat book and finish the one by Oakley.

Although I’m usually awake at midnight, at the monastery I’m usually in bed by 10:00. Then I get up at about 5:00 and am ready for the first prayers of the day — mostly psalms, recited and chanted — a service that runs from 6:00 to 6:45 or so. On this visit, I read and reflected on my retreat book until breakfast (7:30), then more retreat and shave before Mass at 6:30. During the day, I’d spend some more time on retreat, as well as reading my other books and looking at the newspapers in the chapter room. Midday Prayer and lunch were at noon. At “haustus” (snack time in mid-afternoon) there were usually a couple of monks in the refectory to chat with. Vespers was at 5:30, followed by dinner, recreation (community members chatting, reading newspapers, playing bridge, etc.). Compline was at 7:05, and then I’d do more reading until I felt sleepy.

The book being read at meals was “Leonardo da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson. It has been a best seller,and the portions that were read while I was there, dealing with the painting of The Last Supper” and Leonardo’s return to Florence, were interesting enough. Still, I’m not so fascinated that I’d buy the book in order to read the rest, as I did with Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer and “The Quartet,” by Joseph Ellis, after I had heard sections of each on previous visits. Since the dinners on Sunday and Monday were festive, the reading wasn’t done on those evenings, dinner flowed into recreation, and after compline those days we cleaned the dishes from dinner. It’s really fun to pitch in with all the monks — from the abbot through the novice — in the kitchen.

At recreation on Tuesday evening, the abbot introduced me to cribbage. It’s very different from any other game I know, and the scoring is amazingly complex. The next evening, there was an empty seat at the bridge table, so I played, and I think I did adequately.

In order to get to my meeting on Thursday evening, I had to leave by 5:15, which meant I couldn’t stay for Vespers, much less dinner and recreation. Finally it occurred to me that it would be better to drive home in daylight and before rush hour, so I was on the road about 1:00 and home by 2:30.





Matt Damon, BSO, Sexism, and Racism

Not long ago, in the sweep of human history, Matt Damon suggested that there are degrees of sexual harassment and misconduct and that there should be different consequences, depending on the gravity of the offense. I don’t have his actual words in front of me, but I think it amounted to suggesting, in the first place, that rape was worse than touching or even caressing buttocks, and that our and society’s reactions should differ accordingly. To add my own gloss: for some things, one should be imprisoned; for some, loss of employment s appropriate; for some, disgrace is fitting. I’d also comment that in the case of some long past, minor offenses, the consequences should take account of the culture of the time in which they occurred.

The reaction was swift and furious. Denunciations rose to the level of suggestions that his appearance in an upcoming movie should be excised. The rationale seems to be that because he is a man he is not allowed to express an opinion on matters affecting women.  I don’t recall any assertions that all offenses were equally grave, but there may have been an idea that attempting to grade them was irrelevant, since they were all offenses against women.

I think Matt Damon was right, and it was his right to say it. To deny his right to do so because he’s a man strikes me as sexism.


More recently, some people complained to management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that they are not playing enough music by women and minority composers. They pointed out that in this year’s subscription series only one work composed by a woman is being performed.

The question that occurs to me is, “Who are the composers who deserve to have a place alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Rachmaninoff, and others in the standard repertory?” The only female composers of any stature I’m aware of are Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, and I really doubt that there are others as good or better whose works have been suppressed. Similarly, the only “minority” composers I’ve heard of are the Chevalier de Saint Georges and T.J. Anderson (a black man who was a member of the Harvard Musical Association). It’s not that simple, however. It won’t do simply to say, “There are no female or minority Beethovens.”

For one thing, the BSO performs works by second rank composers. This season, for example, we’re being treated to compositions by Méhul, Adams, and Ligeti. There ought to be room for Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach from time to time. In addition, the orchestra regularly commissions or co-commissions new works. This season, they are giving the American premiere of a new work by Jörg Widmann which they and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra jointly commissioned.

So I think the response is twofold. On the one hand, new works by women and minority composers should be as welcomed by the orchestra as those by white males. There may be proportionally fewer women and minority composers than their numbers in the population at large, but sex and ethnicity should not be limiting factors. On the other hand, the music of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries has all been composed, and it’s almost all by dead white men. For the foreseeable future, that music will be a major part of the repertory of symphony orchestras, and that does not mean the orchestras are being racist or sexist.

Next Year in Jerusalem -or- Trump Follows the Law

In 1995 Congress overwhelmingly passed a law requiring that the US Embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem. In announcing that he would finally put the law into effect, President Trump clearly stated that Jerusalem remains subject to negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.

It seems to me that Trump hasn’t made any substantive change. But he has made it clear that the Palestinians will get nothing they want except through a peace agreement with Israel. This should not be an impediment to negotiations, as many are saying, but actually a strong encouragement to negotiate. If the Palestinians think it through and act rationally, that is what will happen.

“Trickle Down:” Inefficient Stimulus

As I understand it, the “trickle down” theory says that if the top tax rates are reduced, those in the top brackets will put the money into business activities which will hire lower-bracket people. Those people, in turn will spend the money they get, which will support a growing economy. The increased wage and business income will lead to additional tax revenue which, it is claimed, will balance the revenue lost when taxes were cut.

Thus, the benefits are largely dependent on additional money finding its way into the pockets of those in the lower tax brackets. Lowering the top rates is a means to that end. It seems to me that, instead of the two step process of trickle down, it would make more sense to focus the tax cuts on the lower brackets and increase the refundable credits in order to benefit even those who have no tax liability.

Another thing which would help drive the expansion of the economy would be what is generally called “universal basic income:” a fixed amount, sufficient to provide necessities of life, given monthly to every resident (possibly less for minors living at home). For the unemployed and those living paycheck to paycheck, this would represent a significant increase in spending power, leading to a significant increase in spending, further stimulating the economy. Businesses would expand, producing the goods most people need and want.

Unlike “trickle down,” which depends on the wealthiest to use their tax savings in ways that put money in the hands of the less well off, lowering the taxes of the less well off and (or) providing a universal basic income will accomplish directly what trickle down can only accomplish indirectly and with a real possibility of some of the lost revenue going to other things (e.g., foreign travel, investment, or purchases).

Trump and the Protests against Racial Injustice

As appalling as Donald Trump’s statements about the protests in the NFL during the National Anthem have been, I’m more unhappy at the reactions of many who have commented on social media.

Although Colin Kaepernick spoke about the reason for his protest, many people ignore what he said and insist, contrary to what he said, that the protesters are disrespecting the flag and the country, some going so far as to insist that the protest was exactly the same as burning the flag or spitting on it. They are fabricating a straw man — possibly as a way of justifying their failure to deal with the real issue. At any rate, unlike many protests, this is peaceful, non-disruptive, and about as respectful as a protest can be (no signs, no chants, a genuflection). As I see it, the protest does not disrespect the flag or the country. It calls the country to live up to our professed values and principles, specifically in the way black people are treated.

Some people try to make the issue one of respect for our armed forces, past and present. Again, that is a fabrication. Not only is it clear that the protest isn’t directed at our armed forces, but also it is an error to suppose that the National Anthem is specifically about the troops and veterans. It’s about the whole country, “the land of the free,” which promises “EQUAL protection of the laws” to all because “ALL … are created equal … with [the same] unalienable rights.” (Emphasis supplied.) The protest is over a perceived failure of the country to deliver what it promises, and many veterans share the perception of the protestors.

Beyond the misrepresentations of the meaning of the protest, there is a denial of the validity of the protest on its own terms. People say, in effect, “What racism?” either they deny racism outright or they try to deny that it’s a big problem. But even if the opponents haven’t observed any racism that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If they think it’s not a major problem for black people — since clearly it wouldn’t be one for white people — the question is how they could know that. One has to understand the experience and perceptions of black citizens. What has made the protests ring true to them? Until someone realizes that. one is in no position to dismiss the complaint of injustice. Any attempt to dispute the validity of the protest will fail to convince the protestors. Furthermore, it will not truly address the protest.

Some people do not dismiss the protest itself or misrepresent its meaning but still try to argue that, valid as the protest may be, kneeling during the National Anthem is the wrong way to make the protest. The editors of National Review, for example, said that there were “a dozen ways” in which the protest could appropriately be made. But they didn’t offer any. If people want to say, do it differently, they need to give specifics about what form of protest would be acceptable. It seems significant that when one team knelt, not during the anthem, but before it, they were booed as if it were during the anthem, giving rise to the suspicion that for many, it’s not about the National Anthem  — that what they really hate is these uppity black people protesting at all.

What Donald Trump has done is to confirm the misrepresentations of the issue in many people’s minds, and he has done so in a way which once again shows that he is a boorish demagogue. His praise of NASCAR introduces a real irony with regard to the “disrespect for the flag” spin. It has been pointed out that NASCAR events are notable for people waving Confederate flags in the stands. It’s a greater disrespect to the flag, to the armed forces, and to our country to proudly wave the flag of rebellion against the United States than to genuflect quietly during “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I’ve heard it suggested that the protests were fading out of public awareness, and that Trump has blundered into making them a big issue again. Whether they will continue at the level of last weekend is doubtful, but at least many more people have been thinking about the protests than would have if he had kept quiet about them. But since he has misrepresented the issue, it has done nothing to promote the reflection which should be taking place. He did the country no service. Some people think he did this to take people’s attention away from his failure to get a repeal of Obamacare or his terrible performance in dealing with North Korea. I doubt he is intelligent enough to plan such a diversion. But I have no doubt he’s been paying attention to the protests to the detriment of fulfilling his real responsibilities.

The sooner he leaves office and is replaced by someone sane, intelligent, and competent, the better it will be for all of us, but it will take more than what has happened so far for the votes to be there to remove him from office. Meanwhile there is only a slender hope that he will decide he is tired of being President and resign.

Impeach Now!: Profile in Courage or Quixotic?

According to Aristotle the principal virtue needed in a statesman is prudence.

For a number of years I was vaguely aware of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, But I didn’t think much about him until a minister from Marblehead went to Phoenix to participate in a protest against his actions. When she returned, she told the story which is repeated in this article. Hearing her account of the brutality of Joe Arpaio and his deputies is what convinced me that he deserved no support from anybody. There are other, more widely circulated, accounts  of what can only be called police brutality at his behest over the years, as well as other sorts of malfeasance in office.

From the time I heard Donald Trump in the debates during the campaigns, I have been convinced that  he is intellectually and psychologically unfit to hold public office. My hope has been that his advisors and subordinates would be able to restrain him from leading us into a disaster. But the danger he represents is so great that I hope he will be removed from office as soon as possible.

There are two possible methods of removal: impeachment by the House for high crimes and misdemeanors and conviction by a 2/3 vote of the Senate; or a declaration by the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet that he is unable to discharge the duties of his office (supported by votes of the House and Senate if the President claims he isn’t disabled). Each method has hurdles.

Impeachment requires an impeachable act. In my opinion, the pardon of Joe Arpaio is an abuse of the pardoning power so egregious as to be grounds for impeachment and removal, and I said, “Impeach Now,” in several things I posted at the time of the pardon. I realize, however, that a motion to impeach based on the pardon would be unlikely to pass in the House, much less gain sufficient votes for conviction in the Senate.

Similarly, Trump’s unfitness for office is not the sort of discrete event, such as a heart attack, which the 25th Amendment was intended to cover — even if the grown-ups around him realize that he’s not right in the head. It would take some serious event demonstrating his disconnection from reality for the VP and Cabinet to say, in effect, “He’s incompetent now in a way he hasn’t been since the day he took office.

Beyond these considerations, there is the question of prudence, as Aristotle reminds us. An officeholder must consider the consequences of his actions. A good officeholder can make accurate judgments about the likely consequences. Thus, a Vice President, Cabinet member, Representative, or Senator needs to act based on the likely result of a possible action. What will happen if s/he acts to declare the President unable to govern or votes to impeach or convict?

Clearly, if the votes aren’t there to make the action stick, if the necessary majority does not exist, any action will be futile, and will only expose the person to possible loss of office either by removal from the Cabinet, or by defeat at the hands of angry voters who support the President. We can admire “profiles in courage,” but it does no real good to be defeated over a predictable failure.

But what if one could be part of a successful majority and still face defeat at the next election by voters angry at the removal of Donald Trump? The facile answer is that removing him from office is so much more important than the details of future legislation as to make it prudent for the long term good of the country. But I can concede that a moderate might consider being replaced by an alt-right candidate in the primary is worse for the country, especially if it is likely to happen in many districts. Similarly, a Republican could consider that losing his or her Senate seat to a Democrat, with consequences for the confirmation of conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, would be too great a price to pay.

At this point, the best hope is that the Mueller investigations will produce enough evidence to convince Representative and Senators that they must impeach and convict Donald Trump, and that the case will be clear and strong enough that even many who voted for Trump will realize the his removal was justified. Alternatively, and even better, would be an outcome similar to that with Nixon — Trump decides that he can’t win, or that the cost of fighting would be too much (such as disclosure of compromising tapes) — and he decides to resign.

I hope that those with the authority to act, especially Republican Senators and Representatives, are discussing privately what might feasibly and prudently be done to bring about Donald Trump’s removal from office.

Free Speech, Trump, Charlottesville, and Boston

Freedom of speech is a right of American citizens guaranteed against government interference by the First Amendment. While the protection does not directly apply to  actions against speech by individuals or non-governemntal organizations, the laws against violence apply. Clearly, the right of free speech is not absolute: incitement to violence and the like are not protected, for example.


Nevertheless, over the past year we have seen a number of examples of scheduled right wing speakers being disinvited by universities because of threats from the left wing. Dennis Prager’s appearance as guest conductor at several has been opposed because of his right-wing opinions. In Berkeley, the anti-right protestors actually resorted to rioting.


Whether or not Donald Trump had these examples or left wing intolerance, protests, and violence against right wing people (not all of whom are Nazis, KKK, or advocates of violence) in mind when he spoke after the violence at Charlottesville, it is clear that there has been violence advocated and perpetrated by “both sides” in our recent history. A “Free Speech” rally was scheduled to take place in Boston a week after Charlottesville. Even before Charlottesville there was much handwringing by the mayor, others, and the press about not wanting the event. The anonymous organizers went public, claimed that they were only interested in upholding the right of unpopular speakers to speak,  and disinvited some scheduled alt-right speakers from their event. Counter-protests were planned; and the mayor, governor, police commissioner, and newspapers called for both sides to refrain from violence. The event took place without serious incident. The police decided that they needed to protect the rally organizers and speakers from potential violence by driving them away in police cars.


It seems to me that there is hypocrisy when Trump is excoriated for calling attention to the presence of violence-prone and peaceful people on both left and right, while others who acknowledge the fact receive no rebuke (since they are merely acknowledging what is common knowledge).


Clearly, Nazis and neo-Nazis profess allegiance to an ideology hostile to the United States. The KKK and other white supremacists set themselves in opposition to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. There is no justification for them to resort to violence, but they have not forfeited their First Amendment rights. Nobody is obligated to provide a forum for them or to listen to them, but nobody has a right to prevent them from speaking peaceably where they are invited. Similarly, the opponents of Trump and the opponents of the alt-right have no right to resort to violence, but they have the right to present their position peaceably.


The threat of violence, and worse still its use, strikes me as a serious challenge to our system of self-government. The legitimate way for citizens to achieve their goals is by petition and through elections, not by violence.