Truth Shock

“One way to prevent conversation from being boring is to say the wrong thing.” – Frank Sheed

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” — Flannery O’Connor

There was a priest in western Iowa who was kneeling in prayer in front of an abortion clinic, and when the police came to escort him away for some technical violation of the law, he said to them:

Thank God you came — there are babies being killed in there!

In a culture grown weary and worn over seemingly intractable abortion debates, the shrill pitch of a voice panicked in the face of a forgotten tragedy sometimes serves well to awaken our drowsy consciences; even if but for a moment.

Quelle est la différence?

Gallup poll 2002

I once heard a homily at a legislative Red Mass that I will never forget. It was thoroughly Socratic in approach, first seducing us into a thought world through provocative questions before detonating the prophetic bomb in the depths of our conscience.

The Gospel that day was Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Last Judgment. Here was his message as I recall it:

Only the holy get into heaven, right? What does that mean? To be holy is to be ‘set apart,’ to be different, other. What sets us apart, makes us different and other? What’s our Christ-difference? How do we look different from our non-Catholic neighbors? What do the Gallup polls say? If people who worked with us were interviewed and asked, ‘What sets this person apart?’ what might they be able to say?

We should think like this. We should examine our consciences at night by saying, ‘What set me apart today; what made me identifiable as a son or daughter of God? As a disciple of Christ? Would people encounter Christ in the way I speak? By the way I act? By the way I spend my money? By the way I spend my time? By the way I respond to suffering and hardships? By the way I respond to insults or accusations or gossip? By the way I approach my sexuality?  By the way I pray before a meal in public? By my work ethic? By the way I choose to love, or refuse to hate? By the way I am faithful to my spouse? By the way I tell the truth with courageous love?’

There must be some discernible difference! If not, we are dead in faith and a scandal to the world.

Years ago I was in Ethiopia at the Catholic Cathedral in Addis Ababa, visiting as an envoy of solidarity from the U.S. representing the Catholic community. Just before a big Mass celebrated in honor of us visiting clerics from America, I was walking across the large public square in front of the Cathedral. There was a mass of pathetic humanity lining the path along which I walked, all of them begging and pleading for alms as I walked by; emitting a terrible chorus of grunting groans. I was told they were saying “mercy, mercy.” I was so uncomfortable and, I admit, fearful, that I walked in great haste past them, refusing to make eye contact for fear of being drawn into this vortex of human need. I quickly vested for Mass inside and we began the celebration in great splendor, with ethereal chant, the church filled with colorful garments and ornate vestments. The stench of body odor outside was forgotten in the deliciously sweet myrrh-laden incense that filled the church.

But it was the homily that crashed on me like an oak tree falling, or a thunderbolt crashing into my mind; into my inner conscience. The homilist, a native Ethiopian priest, quoted St. John Chrysostom at length. It was nearly his whole homily, and it was in that moment a devastating indictment on my own inhumanity. It ran like this:

“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: ‘You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me.’ What we do here in the church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.

Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honor Christ as he desires. For a person being honored finds greatest pleasure in the honor he desires, not in the honor we think best. Peter thought he was honoring Christ when he refused to let him wash his feet; but what Peter wanted was not truly an honor, quite the opposite! Give him the honor prescribed in his law by giving your riches to the poor. For God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts.

Now, in saying this I am not forbidding you to make such gifts; I am only demanding that along with such gifts and before them you give alms. He accepts the former, but he is much more pleased with the latter. In the former, only the giver profits; in the latter, the recipient does too. A gift to the church may be taken as a form of ostentation, but an alms is pure kindness. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?

Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”

That liturgy changed me. As I walked back across the plaza toward the car that would take us to the episcopal residence, I must have spent 30 minutes greeting these beggars; no, these men and women; no, these most beloved sons and daughters of God. I had nothing material to give them, but like Peter in Acts 3:6, what I could give them was Jesus; the healing love of Jesus that comes through eye contact; through touch; through my priestly blessings; through treating each of them as a human being, a child of God, infinite in worth and made in His image and likeness. Though I had come to bring from America the promise of material support for these people, I had forgotten love.

At the end of my pilgrimage through ‘beggar alley,’ I was a changed man. Humbled to the dust, but filled with ethereal joy, and not hellish shame. As Mother Teresa said so well, ‘The poor teach us how to love. They are our masters and we their servants.’

This amazing homily reminded me of the Aidan Kavanaugh quote I so often reference,

The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.

Quelle est la différence?

I will round out this powerful message with the text of a report given by a pagan Roman official, Aristides, to the Emperor Hadrian somewhere around the year 120 A.D. He was carrying out an investigation on the early Christian communities seeking justification to outlaw Christianity. Here’s the difference he found:

They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother.

They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs. If it is possible, they bail him out. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs.

This is really a new kind of person.
There is something divine in them.

Pop Gospel

You must set aside 8 minutes to watch this video (a friend sent me). Absolutely out of the box evangelism.

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.  – Pope Francesco

Watch by clicking here.

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.