Chosen to Suffer

As I have noted before, I have a special love for the work of Professor Albert Raboteau. Today I would like to share with you a quote from one of his writings that deeply struck me when I first read it, and it came back into mind after I went with my wife to see that exceptional, awful and Oscar winning movie, Twelve Years a Slave. I thought I would share it with you today for your reflection during this season when we especially reflect on our call to co-suffer with Christ.

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“James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, in a passage redolent with allusions to scripture, the spirituals and gospel music, eloquently captures the paradoxical history of suffering and triumph of slaves and their descendants. The novel focuses on one day in the life of John Grimes, a black adolescent in Harlem, who seeks to escape the squalid tenements, the racial oppression and desperate poverty of his people. On his 14th birthday John is cast down upon the dusty floor of a storefront sanctified church, “astonished under the power of God.” There he experiences the rebirth of a conversion experience. In his trance he confronts an army of people and is engulfed by a company of the suffering. Struggling to flee, he realizes there is no escape. And suddenly their suffering becomes a sound, a sound John not only recognizes but internalizes:

And now in his moaning … he heard it in himself — it rose from his … cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave … rage that had no language, weeping with no voice — which yet spoke now to John’s startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash … and most bloody, unspeakable sudden death. Yes the body in the fire, the body on the tree.

He struggles to flee, but there is no escape. He must go through this suffering of his people’s past to viscerally experience the paradox that it is precisely these wretched who are the chosen ones of God.

No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward, and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where the blood ran down … No, the fire could not hurt them, and yes, the lion’s jaws were stopped; the serpent was not their master, the grave was not their resting-place, the earth was not their home. Job bore them witness and Abraham was their father. Moses had elected to suffer with them … Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had gone before them into the fire, their grief had been sung by David, and Jeremiah had wept for them. Ezekiel had prophesied upon them, these scattered bones, these slain, and, in the fullness of time, the prophet, John, had come out of the wilderness, crying that the promise was for them. They were encompassed with a very cloud of witnesses … And they looked unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him one day, in glory, at the right hand of the Father.”

I promise to love you and honor you all the days of my life…

An acquaintance of mine once shared with me his conversion story to Christianity (he’s now a devout Catholic), and, though the whole story was fascinating, he had a particularly compelling story buried in the middle of his longer tale of encountering Christ. As he has given permission for me to tell the story, I will share it.

Only weeks after his faith-awakening, he was at work at break-time with his male co-workers. “That day had come,” he said, “when, even though I was changed inside, I had to find the courage to ‘go public’ and face the discomfort of being a changed man.” His co-workers were engaging in what had become a weekly Monday morning “guy” tradition, a tradition of which he was always very much willingly a part: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories” — sexual conquests with hook-ups, girlfriends or even wives. It was a combo of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked, but then said a simple prayer: “Help.” He decided in that moment, instead of condemning their present behavior (and his past) outright, he would tell a weekend story about his wife to honor her, something complimentary about her that had nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly and one guy said, “Damn, man, that’s a downer. What’s that all about?”

He went on to share in a simple way his recent change of heart and immediately faced some mild ridicule sprinkled with “Jesus-freak” comments. But one man, he said, came up afterward and asked him more in private. “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?”

That “one man” eventually became Catholic and as a result joined his co-worker in choosing to honor his wife among his co-workers. They both helped bring about a long-term change in their business’ micro-culture. Its effects still endure to this day.

It’s how all genuine revolutions begin: one courageous heart at a time.

Another Tale of Honor

Here’s another awesome like-story that I happened last year. It’s worth the read.

“My wife is just such a pain in the ass!” he said, as we were changing in the gym locker room.

“You know how it is…” he finished.

Blankly, I stared at him, cocking my head sideways like a befuddled mastiff.

“No. I really don’t,” I replied. Read  more…

…Talkin’ ’bout my Girls…

POPE FRANCIS—A woman kissed Pope Francis’ hand as he greeted guests during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I came across this quote from Pope Francis again yesterday, and it caused me to reflect on the gift of women in my own life,

We talk about whether they can do this or that: Can they be altar boys? Can they be lectors? About a woman as president of Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church.

Thanks especially to the witness and influence of my wife and my daughters, I have discovered over the years in a much more profound manner the “splendor of truth” contained in what Bl. John Paul II called in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Womeningenii muliebris, the “feminine genius.” That genius, the Pope argues, manifests itself in a great diversity of ways and it’s hard to cross-culturally name this or that personal characteristic as a uniquely feminine one. But, he says, there are some universally recognizable, God-given dispositions marked deep in the soul and body of each woman, and at the very core of that “mark” is the woman’s tender solicitude and loving concern for the personal dimensions of each human life — especially in its most weak and fragile state. Human life has been entrusted by God in a primal and particular way to the woman.

Feminine Geniuses

Let me offer four examples — two very simple examples of the soul-shaping epiphanies of the feminine genius in my own life, and then two examples from two acquaintances of mine.

1. Whenever we have a guest come to our home, my wife’s all-consuming passion is to make our home beautiful and welcoming. Flowers in the guest bedroom, fresh towels and scented candles in the guest bathroom, candles and flowers on the dining room table, and libations and hors d’oeuvres in plenteous supply. In St. Edith Stein’s essay,“The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace,” she argues that the “natural feminine concern for the right development of the beings surrounding her involves the creation of an ambiance of order and beauty conducive to their development.” That’s my wife.

2. Every weekday morning, my youngest daughter, as I drive off with my sons to drop them off at school, is relentlessly committed, whether it’s raining or cold, to standing at the end of our driveway to wave goodbye to us. Why? “Because I don’t want you to feel sad that you’re leaving home.” The boys are always puzzled, while I feel each time a deeper heartache as her tender love draws out from me something better. I am ever-more redeemed as a man, as a dad, each time I watch her wave to me in my rear view mirror.

3. A man I know who serves in the military was telling me with great pride about his eleven year old daughter’s many academic and sport achievements. In particular, he shared with me a story that, he said, illustrated a fundamental difference between his daughter and his sons.

For two years, she was the only girl to receive the highest academic achievement award in her grade. But this year she had to share the award with another girl. When I asked her if it was hard for her to not be top dog this year, she said, “No, but I’m excited that we get to get out of first period tomorrow and have donuts together!” She was more excited to share donuts with her friend! My boys? They’d be ticked and mope, just like their dad.

4. A priest I know ministers to the faithful who live on economically depressed rural farms, and he shared with me a powerful story I will paraphrase here.

I was called on one day to give last rites to a man who was dying of mouth cancer. His wife called me. He was a younger man, in his late 40s, and he and his wife had two children — a son in his late teens and a daughter in her mid teens. When I arrived at the farm house, the son was outside tinkering with a truck engine. I asked him, “Is your dad inside?” He said, “Yup.” I continued, “Don’t you want to come in while I anoint your father and pray with him?” He wouldn’t look at me, and said without emotion or hesitation, “Nope.” So I went inside. The man was in bed, in real pain, and his daughter was quietly weeping in the corner of the room. His wife stood over him with a strong and quiet look on her face. She said, “Thanks for coming, Father.” She turned to her husband, held his hand, and said with remarkable strength, “Father’s here to bless you.” Then she disappeared from the room.

I took my oils out, knelt next to his bed and began to pray. He was groaning in pain. Suddenly the door opened and the wife walked in with her son, dragging him by the arm. She pulled him next to his father and said, “Now you say goodbye to your father! Tell him you love him!” The boy began to sob and, on his knees next to his dad, he told him he loved him and said, “Goodbye, Dad” The room was filed with a feeling of solemnity. Even the angels would have stopped singing. The boy then got up and his mom walked him out of the room and closed the door.

I could never have done that. Only she could have. A mother’s love is fierce. Only she could break through his hardness, his fear and open his heart toward his father. As I anointed the man, I felt that I was offering a sacrament after witnessing a sacrament — the sacrament of married love, of a mother’s love that can soften the hardness of even the hardest man.

John Paul II expressed this mother’s genius well,

Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty – not merely physical, but above all spiritual – which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women. — Mulieris Dignitatem #12

Benedicta tu in mulieribus

So, men, today renew your gratitude for the women in your life who humanize you; who call forth from you a certain noble greatness; who remind you of the primacy of love; who proclaim by their very being that, before we are human-doings, we are human-beings created to be loved and to love.

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.. – Bl. John Paul II, Letter to Women #2

Here are the three feminine geniuses who brighten our domestic church…

mom

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Contrasting views of the body

I am usually loathe to just put into my Blog linked articles, but it’s busy these days and this pair of articles that my wife passed on to me the other day was just too amazingly insightful to not pass on to you.

The first is an inspiring and intimate look, via a photo-journal, at the journey of a married couple through terminal illness. Then right after that article-link, as a sort of ironic foil, I include a “youtube summary” of one conception of bodily perfection that dismally fails to identify what is truly worthy of the greatness of real embodied human dignity.

1. When I saw these incredible photos Angelo Merendino took of his wife, Jennifer, as she battled breast cancer, I felt that I shouldn’t be seeing this snapshot of their intimate, private lives. The photos humanize the face of cancer and capture the difficulty, fear, and pain that they experienced during the difficult time. But as Angelo commented: “These photographs do not define us, but they are us.” See photos here.

2. There is the reason that even when I was in really great shape, wore a size 4, and was healthy, it was never good enough for me. All of my logic and intelligence have trouble combatting what I’ve seen as “perfect” day after day for my entire life. Well, I want to see more of this. I want to show my daughter, over and over, why the images of so many women she sees aren’t realistic. And what I really want is for us to stop turning beautiful women into drawings and passing them off as real. See video here.

MLK & St. Basil the Great

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion in the U.S., Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a portion of one of his essays and maybe whet your appetite for seeking out more of his work.

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Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.’”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”

Read other essays at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/albert-raboteau

Cross-eyed beauty

Maclay Gardens pond
Tallahassee, Florida

On a personal note…

My oldest daughter loves to draw, and probably produces a new sketch every day. I collect them, and her sister’s art, and in ~6 month intervals bind them together into a “book” at Target copy. It’s become a ritual. We have 15 volumes and one day they will have their own personal art history collection. I started doing this after a seasoned father once told me after my first son was born, “One the best gifts you can give your kids is good memories to hold on to.” Among the countless ideas this simple phrase has given my wife and I, this is the one that gives me special joy.

So, for fun, I thought I’d share with you the sketch she gave me last night (don’t tell her!). Oh, and wile I’m at it, indulge me to share (again) my fav story of her:

One time, when we lived in Tallahassee, I took the kids to walk through Maclay Gardens. As we approached the concrete pond they loved to explore (it was often filled with tadpoles), I was sternly warning them again and again to not go too near the algae-slicked edge of the water for fear they’d slip in. After maybe four or five warnings, I myself suddenly slipped into the pond up to my waist. Maria, then six years old, said without missing a beat,

Thanks for the demo, Dad.

Which reminds me of witty Chesterton-esque quote I heard two summers ago in a Sunday homily in Omaha, Nebraska:

No one is ever a complete failure. At the very least you can serve as a bad example.

Maria

Wade in the Water

Sunday was the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the river Jordan. It’s a feast of great theological density that, among other things, celebrates the first “public” manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity to Israel.

As Jesus wades with St. John the Baptist into the muddy, sin-washing waters of the Jordan river, the voice of the Father thunders in well-pleased joy over his beloved servant-Son, even as the Messianic Spirit descends to anoint the Body of Jesus for his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the jubilee “year of favor” from the Lord.

In the Eastern Church this feast would be called the Theophany, the “manifestation of God” who makes himself known in Jesus as shockingly merciful — St. John was taken aback! — ready not merely to pardon humanity’s sins, but to identify himself with the “sins of the world” as a scapegoat Lamb of God. We are in awe at this feast as the sinless One is freely and wholly submerged into the tainted waters of repentance that empty into the Dead Sea. It’s an act of humility that anticipates the Cross and Resurrection, a deed that sanctifies all waters, rendering them capable of bearing within them the cleansing and re-creating flood of God’s limitless mercy.

And that’s just the beginning of the depths of meaning compressed in this one feast!

Cantare amantis est, “Those who love sing”

Now, if that brief reflection was a little too dense for you, let me offer yet another window into this feast’s beauty and power — the iconic window of music.

During the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord, my wife Patti, who is a music director at St. James Major parish in New Orleans, sang the Negro spiritual Wade in the Water with a popular local Gospel-blues artist, Cornelius “CC” Celestine, as a post-Communion meditation. Listening to my wife sing in prayer at Mass is always a privilege, but this was a special treat.

In the midst of such a wonderful festal Liturgy, their voices transported me on the wings of beauty to Christ, wading into the river to meet John.

Thank God, just before Mass, I thought to ask them both to practice it once more in the stairwell and let me record.

Here it is. Click here and it should play.

Jordan River

Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s absolutely extraordinary and left me re-filled with rekindled my sense of bewilderment over the mystery of human consciousness, amazement at the complex depths of the human quest for bliss, and wonder before the sheer, unexplained existence of the universe.

In particular, I fell in love with a quote near the end of the last chapter (327-28) in which Hart lays out a path for the serious skeptic to travel if s/he is to explore the problem of God:

In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of infinite being, consciousness and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not merely in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace…no one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can be safely ignored.

That quote then reminded me of a post I had written a year and a half ago, which, for what it’s worth, I include below.

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I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a plethora of fascinating insights into the “spirituality over religion” (SOR) craze in the West.

Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this. The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) extracting and abstracting the spiritual life from the messiness of particularity that attends the real-time human quest to love God in a dysfunctional human community; (2) seeking out primarily individual, autonomous, self-legislating fulfillment in a cosmos devoid of inconvenient, hard ethical truths, given by a divine Legislator, that give ascetically honed shape to the life of a religious practitioner. In regard to the second point, he argued that the spirituality without religion movement prescribes thin, vague and soft ethical principles that are easily adapted to individual preference and radically relativize truth, while spirituality within religion prescribes thick, specific and hard precepts, counseling clearly defined virtues and forbidding clearly defined vices that challenge the individual to be shaped and informed by the given-ness of truth.

It was far more sophisticated than that, but that’s the gist.

Do Faith, then we’ll talk

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he gives to the market-place agnostic spiritual-but-not-religious “seekers” who come to him to inspect Orthodox Christianity — who are attracted to Orthodoxy initially, he said, because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “misty” to offer ample room for their quest for an autonomous faith. He said that he happily entertains their interest, but will not engage in substantive “heady” conversations about the faith until they first agree to do what he asks. Listen to his spiel:

For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who — or if — he is, and simply say in the space of 5 minutes of quiet silence, ‘O God, guide me.’ And then listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there, pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. Then after those six months we can talk about what you experienced, and I will try to answer all your questions.

Otherwise, you’re not really serious in your quest and it’s all a game of the mind.

He said in his experience over 50+ years of priesthood he has never once seen the successful completion of this experiment fail to effect a radical change in opening the skeptical seeker to Christ and his Church.

But, he added, the majority of those whom he confronts with this challenge “walk away sad” as they are unwilling to invest the effort. Like Herod, they want to be titillated by a quick fix, not converted.

“I dare you,” he once said to a young woman, “give Christ a try.” “She did, and,” he said, “she met Him.”

Orthodox priest hearing confession

Scribes of Sanctity

Warning: here I will rethink past thoughts, rehash points I’ve already made on old posts and allow my thoughts to sail about without an obvious place to land. But hopefully my thoughts will shed some light on an important question for those who find it interesting. It’s become, along with my work on St. John of the Cross, the new passion of my theological work.

I had a very fruitful conversation the other day with a theologian friend of mine about my recent musings on “the spirituality of the laity.” We were talking about a really interesting book I happened on this Fall, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher, that spurred me on to new thoughts regarding lay holiness. Our conversation centered around the question, “From whence will come the spiritual literature that captures the uniquely secular character of the journey to lay holiness that the Second Vatican Council proposed?”

The Church in the World

We were talking specifically about the need for a spiritual literature for people who don’t work for church-affiliated institutions (like me), who don’t intentionally separate themselves from broader secular culture into church-affiliated, but rather who live in the midst of the mixed-bag world of work and community and culture as fully engaged faithful citizens. These people find their Catholic connection in local parishes and its various sub-communities, and have to discover their unique path to holiness sunk deep within religiously diverse, un-religious or irreligious contexts. They’re fully immersed in the secular, temporal realities of marriage and family life, are invested in their local cultures and communities, are hard at work in their diverse secular careers, finding themselves very much at home in the secular world even as they willingly suffer the dissonance that comes with being salt, light and leaven in the world. In the world is where they are called by God to be, and as they experience a profound deepening of their faith they must have ready at hand a spirituality and a faith community that inspires and supports their vocation to remain where they are, planted deep in the messy and complex secular world, in the midst of temporalities, there to grow to the heights of holiness.

They must not, we argued, have offered to them a lay spirituality that tempts them think they must to quit, loathe or be indifferent to the spiritual value of their secular jobs, withdraw from all non-Catholic community involvement, get involved only in church activities, and so on. Though some of the laity are certainly called by God to do such things, most are not, and to make “flight from the world” or “church mouse” approaches to the spiritual life look more attractive, more holy or more ideal is to give laity who are called to secularity the clear impression that a life of faith lived robustly deep in the midst of the world is necessarily a lesser, compromised path to holiness than the clericalized/monasticized/ecclesiasticalized path. These laity who are called by God to saintly secularity, who are the majority of Catholics, should, rather, be described as Pope Pius XII described them: the Church on the front lines. They are the ones who “take it on the chin” for Christ as He labors in, with and through them to consecrate the world to the Father. They are the Church that Pope Francis desires to see alive and well:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).

It’s spiritual vision proposed in a number of lay-oriented Catholic movements that have long inspired the secular lay apostolate, e.g. Saint Josemaría Escrivá’s Opus Dei, Chiara Lubich’s Focolare Movement, Legatus, the Knights of Columbus.

Who Will Write for Us?

My friend and I, after wading through these thickets of thought, sketched a proposal for creating fresh iterations of such a “secular saint” spiritual literature. We agreed that since very few of these “fully immersed in the world” saints will actually write a “way of perfection” autobiography or develop a unique spiritual doctrine that emerges from within their lived experience, they need informed biographers and scribes who are sufficiently fascinated with lay holiness, and who are able to theologically reflect on its unique genius, to set out its particular patterns of perfection, its distinct modes of prayer, vocational discernment and Christian virtue. We need what Roger Scruton called “voyeurs of holiness” who can share what they have seen and heard of these saints who are mostly hidden away in the world, and offer literature that empowers/inspires others who have been called along the same path.

I must say that as I thought later of the many types of theologically-minded biographers and scribes who could describe and analyze their holy sightings, I thought first of parish priests who are offered the privileged opportunity to catch an intimate, up-close-and-personal glimpse of God’s people at work consecrating the world. But it’s only those shepherd priests who love their sheep enough to share their smell, and who love the lay vocation as much as they love their own priestly vocation, who can offer to the Church a vivid view of how Christ’s faithful men and women in every walk of life, fully immersed in the world’s joys and sorrows, can and do become holy, scaling the heights of holiness. Men like a priest I know who never tires of sharing with me the stories of remarkable everyday people in and around his parish who “wow” him with their ability to find and bring Christ into the nooks and crannies of their corner of the world. When he sees them at Mass, he says, it fills him with joy to know that all of those unsung lives are brought to him that he might then bring to Christ who in turns sings of them before the Face of the Father. I’ve told this priest he must write of what he’s seen!

Four Lived Witnesses

Let me conclude with four offbeat, real-life examples that at least touch on this points I’ve tried to make here. Then I will leave you at the end with a Steven Curtis Chapman song.

First, I heard a homily this past Fall by a retired missionary priest who was reflecting on the life of prayer. He quoted the Catechism #2672, “there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray” and made an interesting point. He said,

Although it’s true that there are basic elements of prayer that all Catholics share, we should not think that there’s only one good way to pray. While contemplative nuns are asked to pray for hours and hours every day, busy moms have to work hard just to find time when they can and where they can — maybe in the bathroom or locked in a closet for 10 minutes! And while nuns might pray about deep spiritual thoughts, moms will probably pray mostly about their children or husband or someone else who falls under their watchful eye. Dads might offer to God throughout the day their problems at work. I had an Aunt who was the holiest person I ever knew, and she became holy by constantly praying novenas for other people. The key is that you pray, that you let God in on your world and that prayer seeps into the shape and rhythm of your day to day life.

Second, there was a gentleman I knew in Florida whom most would label an “angry old man.” And he was. But when you got to know him well, you saw something different. He worked in a machine shop, was a man of deep faith, active in the Knights of Columbus, and he was keenly aware of his own shortcomings and his problems with anger. And if you knew his life story, you’d totally get the roots of that anger. He confided to me one time after I had given a lecture back in 1998 on St. Teresa’s Interior Castles,

That’s inspiring stuff, but way beyond me. Tom, for me to hold my tongue even once from a sarcastic bite is probably equal to the fortitude needed by a saintly priest facing martyrdom. Life’s made a storm in me, and only God’s mercy, my saintly wife and my brother Knights make me able to live with myself. I always say to men who struggle with their weaknesses, “All God asks is that you take the next best step.” And since that’s all I’ve got to offer God, I can only hope he’s pleased.

Third is a story I’ve already posted on — about a mother of three older children who shared with me her amazing witness from her days as a young mother (as ever, in Neal-paraphrase):

When my children were young I used to long for the days before I had children, when I was heavily involved in charismatic renewal, with lots of time for me-prayer, supportive community and feel-like-a-hero service outreach activities; these gave me energy, life and a sense of purpose. After my second child was born, I felt deep down — though I would never have admitted it — that having children was somehow leading me away from God, as they seemed to present a distraction from what I spiritually enjoyed and thrived on. I also knew intellectually that this couldn’t be. But there I was! I fought it constantly by trying to edge in as many church-related activities as I could, sometimes overburdening my husband with my absences or overspending $ on babysitters.

Then one night when I was awakened by a hungry baby, I sat in my rocking chair nursing and I cried. I prayed, “How do I find you like I used to, God? I need more than this.” Then I suddenly heard God whisper deep into the depths of my broken heart, “Thank you for feeding me.”

It was like a spiritual explosion in my heart, a revolution, a whole upturning of my distorted worldview. God was there, appearing in the dark of night, in my house, in my nursing child, in my domestic vocation, in the present moment. And my longing for intimacy with Jesus suddenly seemed wrapped in dirty diapers and dishes and rare dates out with my husband. After that night, I saw that church life and my me-prayer — still very important to me! — were to be servants of my life outside of church. That my home was my first church. Now I always say, and my charismatic friends laugh, that saying prayers before meals or bedtime with my children has become my new mysticism, and shopping for groceries at Walmart, my new mission trip.

The final example includes some deep questions and struggles that undoubtedly arise for “ordinary” lay faithful who really do wish to take a next-best-step. This woman’s questions beg for a literature that speaks to her unique place in God’s manifold economy of grace. She wrote an email to an Orthodox priest in which she lays out with great honesty and power some complex conundrums that many who want to be faithful will, no doubt, identify with. And her email begs not only for a suitable spiritual literature that informs the lay vocation, but also asks for a new hagiography that equals in volume and passion the vast and rich hagiography of clerical, religious and third order lay saints that constitute most of our spiritual tradition. The next thousand years will, please God, give rise to that literature!

Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths, and, yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they’re also holy from their childhoods. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they have been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice and never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged.

If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain, while others go sailing up. Even in his human life, Jesus had his favorites: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, James, and John, who were the only ones of the apostles allowed to witness the Transfiguration, while the rest of the apostles were left out with the rest of the schmucks.

Our churches are full of ordinary people who chatter in the communion line and quibble over petty parish issues as if their lives depend on them. Why aren’t they being showered with the kind of grace that made St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Sergius of Radonezh? Serial killers have no conscience. In most cases because their parents abused it out of them. What chance did they have?

St. Lucy was protected in the brothel, but unaccounted little girls are trained by their own fathers to be sexual accessories. A life of virginity was never a choice that they could make, as their chastity is torn from them by the very one whose job it is to protect it. I grew up in an alcoholic family. I never learned how to trust the people I can see and do talk to me, much less a God I can’t see and doesn’t talk to me. I’m not asking why evil things happen. Evil things happen because there are evil people doing them. What I’m asking is: why does God make people who don’t have a snowball’s chance on a hot plate of having a kind of relationship with God that the Church teaches we’re all supposed to have?

We’re all supposed to be saints, but there aren’t any examples for ordinary people who don’t have the option of abandoning their spouses and children and running off to a monastery or into the desert. We’re lucky if God answers a prayer for something ordinary, like “Help one of our young adult children find a job,” much less something extraordinary like a prayer for physical, mental, or emotional healing for a friend or a family member. We stumble along doing our best, and then we’re told, it’s dangerous to want a closer relationship with God. The devil can use that to lead us into delusion. For Pete’s sake, can we win for losing?

Where’s the totally ordinary lay woman, married to a lay man, who gets to have anything like a relationship with God? I keep trying, but I haven’t even had a moment of sweetness, just ordinary sweetness, in prayer, for 15 years. Heaven is silent, and I certainly don’t have anything I could even call a relationship with God. And people like me are the majority, stumbling along in the rocks at the foot of the mountain, no hope of ever ascending. Is God too busy with the few he really likes to bother with the rest of us? I know you’re a very busy man, but I’d really appreciate it if you would answer this, if it even can be answered. Thank you, if you have read this so far.

So much more to say here, but I must stop as I have run out of time and I’ve way over-passed my usual word limit. But when has word limit ever limited me?

Do Everything

Now, listen here (you must be on my blog to view!):

Lay saint Gianna Beretta Molla (October 4, 1922 – April 28, 1962), an Italian pediatrician, wife and mother, with her husband, Pietro Molla. See article on her husband here: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/st-gianna-s-husband-dead-at-97