Daily wonder

Image of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Taken from http://www.societyofourlady.net

I came across a quote from American philosopher Thomas Nagel this past Tuesday, and after reading it suddenly exclaimed aloud in my office, “Yes!” My next door co-worker shouted back, “Yes what?” I shouted back, “Long story!” So I decided to write a post to tell the story.

Nagel said,

Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it.

What a fantastic insight! It applies to so many aspects of life. I think, for example, of those many special moments I have with my wife, my children, my mom or my friends. So often in the midst of particularly profound, joyful, tragic or playful moments I will step back and think, “I wish I could appreciate more fully the power or beauty of this moment!” But time is fleeting and one’s capacity to grasp the full import of a particular event in time is so limited.

For example, sometimes, especially when I am out in nature away from both city and suburb, I have these “flash” experiences of gratitude well up in me over the great wonder of existence, of creation, of being alive in a world so vast and beautiful and mysterious. But soon I find myself again thrown back into the dullness of my everyday unawareness that all-too-often keeps my heart from fulfilling its desire to fly on High to Him who is the source and goal of all things in order to say: “Thank you!”

The Kingdom Within

I also think of the mystery, grandeur and immensity of the truths of our Faith! I think of their capacious and monumental significance, and of how I live largely asleep to the awe of their dazzling Presence in my life. In particular, though, I stand in the greatest awe of the doctrine of the “indwelling” of the Trinity, i.e. that the eternal God dwells in my body and my soul. How can we possible comprehend this? My body, my flesh and blood and bones, are a naós, a Holy of Holies in which the all-holy, all-glorious, infinite Trinity — before whom the many-eyed Cherubim hide their faces and tremble! — has chosen to abide. Our great God abides in my tiny abode. Crazy!

This should infest every aspect of our lives and even revolutionize the way we think of sin. St. Paul reminds us of this in his stinging indictment of Corinthian Christians who are still having sex with pagan temple prostitutes,

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not! Or do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? — 1 Corinthians 6:19

I knew a priest named Fr. William in N. Attleboro, Massachusetts who really “got” the dynamic power of this teaching and offered a vivid witness to it. After he baptized an infant, he would hand the baby back to the mother and then slowly step back, genuflect before the baby and say while still down on his knee,

Behold the temple of the undivided Trinity. Now raise this child knowing s/he is that temple.

This gesture always elicited a “wow moment” in the family and friends present, and an occasional gasp. I know it changed the way I think of the grace of Baptism. In fact, the first time I saw the above image of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, in which she is adoringly gazing at the Trinity dwelling within her, I thought it was the perfect Baptismal image of what Fr. William was doing. It reveals the infinite dignity that every Christian possesses.

Do you not know?

How might a Christian better cultivate an awareness of these, to use Nagel’s words, “something tremendous” realities in our day to day life?

The answer, of course, is by prayer. Especially, I would argue, by daily doing what Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection called the “practice of the Presence of God.” At the heart of this “practice” is the habit of frequently stopping throughout the day, even if only for a few moments, to call to mind one of the many ways in which God is present to us. As we pause, we should pray, “Lord, show me your Face!” Become aware of God present to you as Creator, lovingly sustaining you in existence at every moment; present in the Holy Eucharist; present in your spouse or friend, in a stranger or an enemy; present in your repentance, in suffering or in joy. Or, as I am especially fond of doing, become aware of Him present deep within your soul.

It’s also very fruitful, at the end of each day, to practice an examen in which we can recall the day’s events and ask the Spirit to reveal to us where He revealed to us the Face of God-with-us.

This, I might say, is what “seek and you shall find” means. How much seeking do you do every day? If we don’t “practice” the presence of God consistently, it will be difficult for us to recognize Him when those dark or difficult times come around and we want to see Him. When someone says to me in the midst of a crisis, “Where was God?,” I think, “Did you seek Him out before now?”

Eucharistic amazement

When I first began to practice my faith back in 1987, I was struggling with what to “do” after I received the Eucharist. No one had ever told me, and I always felt a bit lost and hazy after receiving. Once I asked the pastor of the parish I attended for help, and he gave me St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer after Communion, which was a great help:

I thank You, Lord, Almighty Father, Everlasting God, for having been pleased, through no merit of mine, but of Your great mercy alone, to feed me, a sinner, and Your unworthy servant, with the precious Body and Blood of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that this Holy Communion may not be for my judgment and condemnation, but for my pardon and salvation. Let this Holy Communion be to me an armor of faith and a shield of good will, a cleansing of all vices, and a rooting out of all evil desires. May it increase love and patience, humility and obedience, and all virtues. May it be a firm defense against the evil designs of all my visible and invisible enemies, a perfect quieting of all the desires of soul and body. May this Holy Communion bring about a perfect union with You, the one true God, and at last enable me to reach eternal bliss when You will call me. I pray that You bring me, a sinner, to the indescribable Feast where You, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit, are to Your saints true light, full blessedness, everlasting joy, and perfect happiness. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

But it was not until I read St. Teresa of Avila’s description of a vision she had after receiving Communion that my imagination lit up. It totally rocked my world and, for a few days, even made receiving the Host a bit fearful. How could something so epoch,  something of such staggering magnitude happen in puny little me? Here’s what she said in one of her Soliloquies,

Once after receiving Communion I was given understanding of how the Father receives within our soul the most holy Body of Christ, and of how I know and have seen that these Divine Persons are present, and how pleasing to the Father this offering of His Son is, because He delights and rejoices with Him here–let us say–on earth. For His humanity is not present with us in the soul, but His divinity is. Thus the humanity is so welcome and pleasing to the Father and bestows on us so many favors.

Come on! Are you kidding? The Father receives the self-offering of the Son “afresh” in me each time I receive? It’s been 26 years since I read that text and I still can’t get over it. Even thinking about it too much causes, as my son calls it, “brain shutdown.”

Interior Castle

A last point. I knew a really holy priest in Massachusetts back in 1990 who lived in a nursing home. His name was Fr. Robert Goulet. He was in his 90’s when I met him. We became quick friends and for a whole summer I would go to Mass with him every day at 5:00 a.m. He’d celebrate it in his room with just the two of us there. It was a great privilege for which I will never cease to be grateful. We would talk after Mass about the spiritual life, and he loved to talk about the mystics. One day I remember we were talking about St. Teresa, and he shared with me his favorite story from her writings — her vision of the soul. He said, “Can you imagine if we really believed that this was the way it was? Don’t you know we could never sin! I think we’d die of joy! Maybe that’s why God hides it from us.”

Teresa’s vision was shared publicly by one of her confessors, Fray Diego de Yepes, after her death. I will leave you with this extraordinary image of your soul to ponder. Hopefully it will kindle a bit more your daily wonder over the shocking dignity that is yours in Christ. Be amazed!

This holy Mother had been desirous of obtaining some insight into the beauty of a soul in grace. Just at that time she was commanded to write a treatise on prayer, about which she knew a great deal from experience. On the eve of the festival of the Most Holy Trinity she was thinking what subject she should choose for this treatise, when God, Who disposes all things in due form and order, granted this desire of hers, and gave her a subject. He showed her a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendor, illumining and beautifying them all. The nearer one got to the center, the stronger was the light; outside the palace limits everything was foul, dark and infested with toads, vipers and other venomous creatures.

While she was wondering at this beauty, which by God’s grace can dwell in the human soul, the light suddenly vanished. Although the King of Glory did not leave the mansions, the crystal globe was plunged into darkness, became as black as coal and emitted an insufferable odor, and the venomous creatures outside the palace boundaries were permitted to enter the castle. This was a vision which the holy Mother wished that everyone might see, for it seemed to her that no mortal seeing the beauty and splendor of grace, which sin destroys and changes into such hideousness and misery, could possibly have the temerity to offend God. It was about this vision that she told me on that day, and she spoke so freely both of this and of other things that she realized herself that she had done so and on the next morning remarked to me: ‘How I forgot myself last night! I cannot think how it happened. These desires and this love of mine made me lose all sense of proportion. Please God they may have done me some good!’ I promised her not to repeat what she had said to anyone during her lifetime.

 

Saved?

{a post I drafted in 2011 that I queued and forgot about, and as I am very busy today I will post it unfinished. So if it feels like it begs for more, well…}

The Transfiguration

Recently, I attended an annual interfaith prayer service. After the prayer service ended all of the participants went out into the common room for refreshments and chit chat. I ended up speaking with a theologically literate Greek Orthodox layman (with a Greek accent) and a Baptist minister. Somehow we ended up on the subject of our three traditions’ respective theologies of salvation. I don’t think I had ever experienced a theological dialogue of substance at an interfaith service before, as they usually promote what is commonly held and dialogue tends to stir the pot. But it was an amicable conversation and I was totally energized by the prospect of talking theology with people who loved to talk about such things! But I was unprepared for the jolt this brief exchange would provide.

The Baptist minister gave a brief and eloquent summary of his tradition’s way of understanding salvation as justification by faith alone that comes from accepting Jesus from the heart as personal Lord and Savior. He offered some helpful nuances on the positive role of “works” in salvation that, he said, offered much “common ground” for discussion among the three of us.

Before I could speak, the Orthodox gentleman said very matter of factly, “We Orthodox hope to become God.”

The minister replied in a muted but surprised tone, “Become God?”

The Orthodox layman said, “Yes, of course. Salvation is only saying what Jesus is, right? And what we say of Jesus we say to all of humanity that accepts Him. I mean, what else do we mean when we say we are born of God in Baptism, eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of the God-Man in His Holy Mysteries? Right? You cannot be more a part of another’s life than being born of them and consuming them, eh?”

“But what does that really mean, practically?” the minister asked, emphasizing the word practically.

The Orthodox man said, “Very simple. It means we love as God loves, act as God acts. Don’t lie. Do justice. Be merciful. Forgive. Be faithful to your spouse. Die a martyr. You know, doing like God does because you’re being what God is.”

The minister looked at me and said, “What do you think?” I responded, “What he said.”

The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” — Catechism # 460

Vid

Here’s a brief video with an Orthodox testimony on what it means to be saved that beautifully unfolds the heart of these words:

“My body pines for you” — Psalm 63:2

I was privileged to hear a lecture yesterday by a priest who did his graduate work on the life and spirituality of Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Among other things, he focused on the theme of “thirst,” which, for those who know anything of her work, features prominently in Mother’s mysticism.

Thirst, for her, was a symbol of the human and divine desire to love and to be loved. For Mother, the human longing to love and to be loved was an echo of God’s infinite and eternal longing to love and be loved. There’s a mind-bending paradox in this assertion. The priest said,

God, strictly speaking, has no needs and needs nothing from his creatures. He is self-subsistent, the Unmoved Mover. But, as Pope Benedict tells us in Deus Caritas Est, he is also love. And not just “agape,” which is self-giving love; but also “eros,” that love which is a desiring, yearning, longing, pining, thirsting love that draws God out of his utter transcendence to “come out” into all things in order to enter into a union of love with his creature. Eros-love, the saints say, makes God “mad,” inasmuch as his love drives him to condescend like the Samaritan down into the ditch with fallen man, ready to suffer every darkness and pain out of his desire to achieve full union with us. Union with each of us, personally. Not generically, personally, and in exquisite detail; the hairs on our head. And as each soul is absolutely unique and unrepeatable, God’s manner of “coming out” of himself and yearning for the union of love with each soul is also absolutely unique. God’s love for each of us is totally particular, as if only I existed. Even as God’s love for each of us admits of common characteristics, as he was dying on the Cross, burning with thirst for our love, Jesus the God-Man thought of each of us individually, specifically, as he hung there parched with thirst and racked in pain; and he endured the “passion of the Passion” out of love for each one of us here in this room. This desire of God for us is no weak thing, but it’s a raging thirst, like the human experience of being parched, scorched, near death and in a dry desert yearning for the raining response of human love. In fact, by becoming human God has revealed his thirst for us in human flesh and his Passion enabled him to reveal infinite desire in a finite, but still extreme way; as if he were saying, “Look! I am here showing you the beauty and magnitude of my infinite love for you!” This is what Mother’s whole spirituality was about: slaking the thirst of God for human love and the thirst of humanity for divine love. And she went, sent, to where that love was most absent, into the loveless corners of the world where there was suffering and poverty and rejection on the margins of life; and absence of love. And she brought with her the thirst of Jesus, who is the thirst of God and man joined to become a living fountain.

After he finished his mesmerizing presentation, I struggled to find a way to be alone just for a brief time. I had to recover from its impact. And as I sat and reflected in my office, I recalled the words of St. Maximus the Confessor that I first read back in 1989. I will never forget the impact of these words the night I first read them. In fact, I even remember where I was sitting when I read them in the Philokalia. It read like this,

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

What took my breath away about this quote was the fact that I had never imagined God, who is Pure Act, could be said to “long” for anything; especially for my response to his love. It revolutionized my prayer life immediately and impacted the way I thought of the Eucharist. In fact the very first theological poem I ever wrote came to me only a few weeks after I read this text of Maximus. That poem, which I’ve long since lost, was on the mystery of the (as we say in the Nicene Creed) “procession” of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. He is the Person of “pure receptivity” within the Trinity. No other divine Person comes forth from him, which makes him, in a singular way, pure Gift. He is the “Treasury of all blessings,” as the Eastern liturgy names him, precisely because the whole of God is self-emptied into his Person. What a new meaning Pentecost had for me — after the death and exaltation of the Son, Father and Son wholly emptied themselves out in the Church by giving us the infinite Treasury. My God!

I only remember part of one line from the poem. It was part of the stanza that described the Spirit as the substantial-personal “dispossession” of the divinity of the Father and Son. The line was,

O Substance ever possessed,
ever dispossessed.

I remember when I wrote it being amazed at the thought that each Person in the Trinity, wholly identified with the divine Substance (which means whatever-it-means-to-be-God), can only be said to possess that Substance in the mode of dispossession, i.e. to be God means at once to give all away to the Other and, also at once, to receive the Other back. When I wrote the poem, inspired by Maximus’ words, I sensed for the first time that this inner-Trinitarian dynamism was what boiled beneath God’s longing to give “all the fullness of God” to humanity and receive all back from humanity under the form of faith, hope, love, trust, sacrifice. In other words, we mere mortals are, in Christ and the Spirit, drawn by grace into this immortal and infinite mystery of God’s threefold thirst for giving and receiving love.

At the end of his presentation, the priest-presenter shared a story about Jesuits in India who had established an impressive school of Christian apologetics that engaged at an academic level in a robust Hindu-Christian dialogue. The hope was that this dialogue, even as it drew out the riches of Hinduism, would reveal to non-Christian students the beauty of Christianity as the completion of what is true in Hinduism and lead them eventually to conversion. But it produced no converts. Then the Missionaries of Charity set up shop near this university and began to care for lepers. The Hindu students of this school happened on the sisters one day and, on returning to the university, tearfully requested baptism. Why? They said, “only the true God could create such beauty.”

The beauty of charity, of a thirsting love that awaits our consent to receive the self-emptying of God only to get caught up into the boiling Trinity, go out and give away the Substance that can only be possessed in dispossession.

…tell the next generation
that such is our God,
our God for ever and always.
It is he who leads us. – Psalm 48:14-15

The Missionaries of Charity. Taken from http://www.has.vcu.edu

Liturgizing into faithful love

Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. — 1 John 3:18

My grandfather once wrote me a letter when I was in college that had in it what I considered at the time to be a strange piece of advice. He said,

If you want to be good, to acquire virtue, you’re going to have to fake it for a while before it can come from the heart.

I recall thinking, how can it be a virtue if it’s fake? But man, he was right on.

Spousal Sagacity

My wife really gets this with our kids. Her philosophy goes something like this. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for the value of hard work and shared responsibility, then give them consistent chores. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for patience as a virtue, give them tedious tasks to accomplish. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for the virtue of gratitude, then have them write thank you notes or call their grandparent to say “thank you” for every gift they receive.

Me? I say, talk about it. I am more likely to give a lecture on the etymology of the word respect to my child who has just disrespected a sibling, while she says, “Give him push ups! Have her clear his place and wash his dishes!”

And she’s unquestionably right.

Eating with Love

I grew up in a family that generally did not practice the together at table family meal.  As a result, I liked to eat alone, fast and quickly move on to the next thing. Eating was utilitarian. I recall my grandmother chiding me for “scarfing and running,” and calling me to slow down, appreciate the food that was “made with love,” and enjoy the company and conversation at table. For me as an adolescent, such an idea was pure torture.

When Patti and I married and had our first child, she introduced me to the nightly “family meal.” This novelty was for me a daily inner thrashing. I wanted to “scarf and run,” though I was never quite sure where I was in such a hurry to go. Then we had our second, third and fourth child, and the tradition grew and continued on relentlessly. It was, for nearly ten years, like a daily beating having to sit in place, be a model of paced eating and patient conversation for, and with, my children. But slowly, ever so slowly, I noticed a change in myself. The urge to flee lessened, and a certain delight began to seep in.

One evening, nearly ten years into this daily ritual, I recall siting down for dinner and — to my amazement — feeling no inner resistance at all. It was like the back of my inner loathing was broken and my heart of stone had become a heart of flesh. Now nine years after that day, I can say I have never once again felt the urge to flee, and now love the family meal. I was saved as a father by doing the will of my heavenly Father, healed by the baptism of sweat (cf Matthew 7:21). I have my wife to thank for inspiring that change, for challenging me to perseverance, for being the Sacrament of grace for my conversion to table fellowship. And my children one day will have her to thank for shaping in them from the very beginning the beauty of mingling food and family fellowship; the habit of communion. And I will add here that I am convinced one cannot really “get” the joy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass if one cannot “get” the joy of the sacrifice of a family meal.

Atheists who pine for God

Another story that again makes my grandfather’s point.

I watched a documentary years ago on Pope John Paul II, and at one point they interviewed a woman who grew up Catholic, but had later in life become an atheist. She was reflecting on her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s, the nightly family rosary, the devotions, and especially the Sunday High Mass and Sunday evening Benediction that marked her family’s weekly routine. Then she recounted a remarkable experience she had while on a business trip to Moscow. She said she was touring the various historical sites, and happened into a Church where Vespers was being sung. As she walked in, she found herself overwhelmed by the sweet haze of billowing incense, the bright blaze of colors splashed on the icons and the rich harmonies that resonated deep in her memory.

I found myself lost, forgetting where I was and even who I had become over the years. I was again a child bewitched by this alien world that took me away from my godless life. When I came to my senses, I looked down to see that my shirt was sodden, drenched with tears as I had been weeping. I had no idea! And strangest of all, I found myself aching, pining for a God I didn’t even believe in. It was disconcerting, but I just couldn’t shake it. I was so close again to faith, it was etched from my youth into my body. But when I woke up and remembered who I was, where I was, I knew I still could not believe. And it hurt, because how I wish I could…

Sticky Faith

How much of a whole parenting philosophy is found in this view! And a whole school of catechesis that refuses to succumb to a hyper-intellectualized pedagogy or apologetics, but rather incorporates and even privileges the performative and embodied aspects of formation over the cognitive and conceptual. Not setting them at odds, or succumbing to dumbed down faith, but setting belief in a regime of homey and doable praxis that infests the details of life and the center of the guts. You can’t just give someone a book or a CD or a podcast. You have to give them a way of life, a way of doing, a strategy for being in action. Jesus is not so much the Truth about the Way to Life, but the Way to the Truth that gives Life. It’s why, as a elderly priest once said to me,

If you’re going to get people to stick to the faith you have to give them a faith that sticks to their ribs and their guts. The practice of Catholic devotions like novenas, holy cards, the daily rosary, meatless Fridays, Stations of the Cross,  miraculous medals, patron saints, the sign of the cross, the morning offering, Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction were always the glue that kept people coming back and that injected their faith into the thick of daily life. They may have been sometimes sentimental and sappy, but they struck and made faith tangible. When we abandoned those and got too whitewashed, too heady and wordy, we also jettisoned the glue that makes faith stick. Pop culture also gets this need for “sticking power” ideas, though, instead of appealing to people’s better angels like we try, they too often call out the base passions to make not better people but better consumers. We have to be able to compete.

Heady and wordy? Sounds like me!

Liturgizing Faith

Let me leave you with my own written summary of a lecture on liturgy given by the Protestant cultural theorist, James KA Smith. It captures some very powerful insights and makes my point well.

To change your heart, move your body. If it’s true that practice makes perfect, then it’s ritual repetition that perfects desire, it’s affectively, imaginatively charged liturgical praxis that fuels the pre-conscious momentum of your whole life toward some particular set of goods. It’s not the abstract ideas of a culture that form us in the guts as much as the habitual practices of our culture. Cultural praxis is a form of liturgy, and liturgy, broadly defined for our purposes, is a ritual that enacts our ultimate concerns, forms our loves, orients our deepest visceral desires. And these deep regions of human consciousness are what shape 95% of our waking decisions and actions; so if you want to redirect 95% of someone’s day give them new goods to desire by giving them a new set of habits, things to do, move their bodies toward that good. Nike’s right, Just Do It… to help give shape to a culture Christianity must propose a robust cadre of formative liturgies, both in church and away from church. If too much emphasis is placed on faith’s cognitive, cerebral data to be processed by means of critical, higher thinking and logic — crucial as these are — and not on setting the inner affective, pre-conscious, imaginative, intuitive, second nature compass, then most of life, which means most of our reflexive decisions, will be unaffected, unformed by faith. Christian liturgy’s power to form is not primarily focused in a twenty minute sermon that conveys a set of persuasive arguments, but rather in the rich panoply of idea-saturated sights, scents, sounds, movements that again and again and again infest our inner core, that bypass our abstract cognition and settle in our knee-jerk judgments, our instincts, our flesh and bones and carve out fresh neural pathways that lead straight to the Kingdom. Faith, and the myriad liturgies of faith, must offer a way of embodying belief in imaginatively rich, rhythmic, daily practices that relentlessly orient life toward God and his Kingdom at the deepest levels of consciousness. These must make one’s living faith feel just like that moment when you find yourself startled, arriving at home from work in your car and asking yourself: “How the heck did I get here?” The answer? Not because you thought carefully about it as much as you felt the fire deep in your bones; a fore that was kindled in the liturgies of life…

 

Reconciling Resurrection

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” — John 21:15

“Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you–out of love–takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.” ― Dag Hammarskjöld

To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless. ― G.K. Chesterton

“To every person of good will, eager to work tirelessly in the building of a new civilization of love, I say once more: Offer forgiveness and receive peace!” — Bl. John Paul II

Hatred is not a creative force. Only love is. — St. Maximilian Kolbe

Grace in Rwanda

In case you did not see this article, I beg you to read it. This story is precisely why Christ died and rose from the grave.

Click here.

Duty Bound

The other day I came across a line in Matthew Henry’s Evangelical biblical commentary that really struck me (note, it’s not a commentary I generally would recommend). In expounding on Philippians 2:12, which counsels us to “work out our salvation,” the commentator said,

Do your duty without murmurings.

I thought, how very simply put, but how much of life one could gild with Gospel gold just by faithfully executing this terse phrase in each and every moment!

To imagine a life characterized by loving attention to the innumerable procession of small details that constitute the existential contours of one’s vocational state in life is to imagine a life burgeoning with limitless opportunities for unsung heroism. Think of the rich and diverse opportunities afforded you for acts of patience, kindness, meekness, forgiveness, peacemaking, courage, temperance, chastity, prudence, justice, hope, faith, charity and a near-endless variety of other deeds of excellence! How terribly spoiled we are by a life overflowing with so many chances, daily offered to us in excess, to share in God’s greatest work of making us saints! It’s really quite embarrassing.

Liturgical Love Life

Even if I often live far from it in reality, I have come to think of life’s details as so many fragments of sacred ritual that fill out the bodily liturgy that is my daily life.

Therefore, I beseech you brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies in living sacrifice, holy, well pleasing unto God, which is your rational worship. — Romans 12:1

St. Paul rightly calls this liturgy of life a “sacrifice,” which involves aspirants to holiness in a manner of living that is wholly-other focused. A self-less life, i.e. less self, more God-neighbor. Holiness is perfected Christ-like loving, and loving is willing the other’s good or the Other’s glory. For the disciple of Christ, love is not a laudable extra but an expected duty. Our duty is to love, which makes duty a noblesse oblige, the sweetest of obligations, an obligation that even God himself cannot escape!

O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come. — Catherine of Siena

Feelings, so much more than feelings

I might add here that it is enough at times to simply will to carry out faithfully the details of our daily duty, even when within our emotions rage against our will, though it is good to aspire and pray for the grace to do one’s duty out of heartfelt love; for the redemption of our passions. For me it’s a tremendous relief to know that fidelity to God’s will does not demand of me the harmonious cooperation of my emotional life. How often I must choose to love those around me when I am not “feeling it.” In fact, fidelity can actually be more meritorious when it’s carried out in spite of our emotions’ unruly or irrational rebellion. Certainly Jesus’ emotionally agonizing choice to embrace the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane offers us an extravagant model of faithful obedience in the face of an inner riot.

St. Josemaría Escrivá expressed this balance of desire beautifully,

Put your heart aside. Duty comes first. But when fulfilling your duty, put your heart into it. It helps.

Hidden Martyrdom

I know someone who shared with me a beautiful insight in this regard, and thankfully they gave me permission to anonymously share it. This person, who has a sound character and deeply loves God, had long searched for radical ways to offer his life to God. He wanted God to give him the chance to suffer a painful martyrdom to witness to his love for Christ and bear the fruits of redemptive suffering for his loved ones’ salvation. Whether that would mean a bloody death or a terrible illness, he was willing to accept whatever hardship might come from the Hand of God. He expressed this desire to me with such a beautiful, childlike and disarming sincerity of love that it made me feel uncomfortable for its convicting power. “But,” he said,

once, when I was sharing this desire with a wise and trusted friend, she said to me, “You’re looking for big things here. You don’t need to ask for such extreme things. Just do your duty and that will suffice. God wants the sacrifice of a faithful will, not your pain. If pain comes, then offer it; but don’t overlook the treasure you already have to offer right in front of you.”

How insightful is that? Greatness in God is far more often homely than comely, unseen than obvious. Ever since he shared this story with me, “Do your duty” has become my prayer’s antiphonal refrain. But now I also add to it the coda stolen from Matthew Henry, “without murmuring.”

Bloom where you’re planted

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes on sanctity through fidelity to daily life’s present demands from St. Francis de Sales. It’s found in the Breviary’s Office of Readings on the day of his Feast, and it never ceases to thrill me as often as I read it. He speaks here of “devotion,” which for him means not escapist piety, but love of God in the form of radical fidelity to the demands of one’s state in life.

When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.
I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbor. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfills all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.

Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its colour, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.

It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.

Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.

 

Our Wild God

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org

A friend of mine shared with me a story last weekend about a malapropism that found its way into the pre-Mass announcements at a parish one Sunday morning. The opening song for that day was that wonderful hymn, written by 19th century British composer Fr. Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The lector, who is quite excellent, got up before Mass began and read the opening announcements. When she got to the end, she proclaimed in a loud and confident voice:

Please join us in singing our opening song, “There’s a Wilderness in God’s Mercy.”

The choir cracked up.

Felix Culpa

After chuckling a bit myself, I began, predictably, to muse on the theological possibilities found in this happy mistake. I thought of the meaning of the word “wilderness,” which comes from the Old English wild-deor, “wild deer.” It refers to lands populated by untamed, undomesticated animals that escape the control of human beings, or, more generally, to the wider natural world that is unconcerned with the orderly concerns of human culture and enterprise. It is a world fraught with danger and mystery, strangely seductive to those who loathe the sleepy comforts of an overly-controlled suburban contentment that populates our more or less gated lives. Wilderness is where the sleepy must go if they are to awaken and escape from their binding attachments that turn comfort into an idol, safety into a prison, sameness into ossifying chains that keep suburbanites from soaring into the City of God. As Thoreau said in Walden,

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I have a friend who loves the to engage in period forays into the wilds, to trek outdoors where he loves hiking and camping, adores the discomforts of grunge and sweat and mosquitoes and unexpected downpours. He’s been hit by lightening (via the water his boat was floating in), bitten by snakes and attacked by hawks when he ventured too near their nest. By week, he’s a professional businessman. I asked him once why he felt so drawn to such things and he said,

It’s what keeps my soul from going stale. It’s where I see God most clearly, when all the clutter and busyness of life peels away. It’s where I can drop the Type A obsession with neatness and be messy in God’s order of things. Out in nature it’s like God’s saying to me: you humans, you’re so small, and you’re part of something much bigger than yourselves, a world you just can’t control. You don’t try to control it, you just find your place in the ecosystem, in an order not of your making. It’s got a beauty that’s way too easy to forget is already all around you all the time when your surrounded all day by concrete walls and papers and virtual media. It’s like the week that grows in the sidewalk crack, defying our claim to bend all nature to our utilitarian will. After I get back from being in the forests and swamps, I can see God much better in the paper and concrete; and in the people around me.

Wild at Heart

God created the wilderness and asked man to make of it a Garden, but Man, having rebelled, was expelled from the Garden into the wilderness. But our vocation remains, a vocation to transform the wilderness into a Garden or, maybe, to discover in the wilderness the Garden God is fashioning. Something like that.

In the Scriptures God, who is himself a wandering Nomad of sorts, has a certain affection for journeying with his chosen people into the wilds of a trackless and barren desert. It’s the place where God leads Israel when they’ve become overly controlled or controlling, enslaved in pseudo-worlds of their own making. These are worlds populated by false gods, or by a domesticated God fashioned into an idol, a work of human ingenuity that strips God of all his dangerous attributes that threaten to expose humanity’s injustices, deceptions, guilt or inhuman malice.

If there’s anything that true about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it’s that he is essentially wild, fearfully uncontrollable, and absolutely free from all necessity save the exigencies of his own divine nature (e.g. his truth, goodness, fidelity, mercy). Every biblical character who encounters God must be at once told, “Do not be afraid!” because to meet God is to be set off balance as unclean meets the All-Holy, injustice meets the All-Just, or some such juxtaposed contrast that shatters petrified hearts, refashioning them in the Potter’s free-wheeling Hands. Even in the Christian mystical tradition, one frequently hears the mystic describe the “shock” of encountering God with the stock phrase, “of sudden!” God’s coming, without warning, comes like a sudden squall, though, unlike the natural phenomenon, the divine Storm comes to wreak havoc only in order to recreate and restore the original order.

You might say that the essence of the covenant God makes with Israel, fulfilled in Christ, can be summed up as an invitation of God to us, and our affirmative consent, to allow “God to be God” as God with us. That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us,” but on on God’s terms, not ours. That’s who Jesus was and is, God with us on God’s terms, even (and especially) in the face of our violent resistance and rejection — and there, crucified, God-with-us reveals himself to be, beyond all our wildest imaginings, unrelentlingly merciful. And one need only think of the resurrection appearances — strange, unexpected, terrifying, bewildering, awful, inducing worship — to sense that this revelation of God is ruinous for the preconceptions of sinful men and women who wish God to be God on their terms.

There’s something gravely dangerous, disconcerting, about surrendering to God’s uncontrolled nature, especially inasmuch as our fallen nature, fashioned originally in his image, has marred the divine likeness by attempting to seize control of the divine image by fashioning idols, staging a coup to overthrow God and, ultimately, plotting to slay him. Those who choose thus set themselves at odds with God, against his Face and his wildness, suddenly discover that he appears, to the reprobate, to be wrath. As God has not changed, and cannot change, we discern that it is our posture toward him that has altered. But God, whose justice is ever-rife with prodigal mercy, reveals to us the way back, draws us by “bands of mercy” (Hosea 11:4) toward the path of life, which is life lived in concert with God’s untethered, unstrained and pity-full love. When the author of Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we might read there not only divine wrath but, for those willing to repent of their deadly coup, God’s far more fearful mercy. It is an unyieldingly, mercilessly relentless mercy that effects in the willing a total and complete remedy that heals our sins to the deepest roots.

St. John of the Cross speaks so powerfully of this “labor of mercy” in the Dark Night. There he argues that those who consent to permit God’s unchained mercy a free reign in their deepest depths feel simultaneously out of control and absolutely secure as God, the absolutely trustworthy Divine Surgeon, sees to the death of death within us. Here, John says, prayer becomes challenging as we sense that God is remaking us within, deconstructing our sins and distortions, and recreating within us the Kingdom of God. Those who pass through this final purifying “night” discover within them the Dawn’s rising, and they themselves become wild with the folly of the Risen Christ, wise with the wisdom of the Cross, are propelled to and fro by the freely blowing Spirit, drunk with divine love’s madness and freed (as Augustine says) to love and do as they will. But none of this can be had until they have been freed from self-will, from illusions and flights of fantasy, grounded in the Commandments and the virtues, for there is no true freedom until one’s will has been chained to the divine will by obedience. Those who seek freedom without obedience worship themselves and seek a false wilderness that leads to death and the land of illusions.

Wild in Mind

A last meditation on the “Wilderness in God’s Mercy.” In our theological tradition, we affirm that human language has the capacity to reveal the truth of God’s transcendent nature (called kataphatic, or “saying” theology), but we also affirm that human language is very fragile in is capacity to comprehend God’s nature (called apophatic, or “unsaying” theology). Theologians try to balance these two in “the ascent of the mind to God,” climbing an analogical ladder that we are at-once climbing and being lifted up on. Our knowledge of God, as we grow in intimacy with him, increasingly enters into contact with this unstable tension between “saying” and “unsaying,” stammering and singing our way into the mystery of what Meister Eckhart called the “vast and silent desert of Divinity.” God is vast beyond our every capacity to “think big” about him, which, for the theologian should not stand as a reason to despair but rather as a reason to give thanks! In the words a small child in Iowa who once misspoke at Mass, miming the proper liturgical acclamation that follows the biblical readings, “Thanks to Big God.”

It’s a tension that elicits with the theologian (or any person of faith) humility, wonder, desire, longing, terror, dizziness, joy and ecstasy, widening our horizons and making us evermore capax Dei, capable of God. It’s why theologians must also be men and women of prayer, as we strive to experience the Mysteries we explore and render ourselves vulnerable to suffering the coming of the real God, the true God, the living God, and not the God of our puny imaginings or warped desires. In other words, theologians are those whose hearts, having been purified, can see God under the form of an inchoate glory and called to share our vision with the Church. Or, for those of us who know we are far from that purity, at least give voice to those who have seen thus.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

Let me end this already too-long post (which I will give you rest from tomorrow with a post-less day) with some fav quotes from two of the great Masters of God’s wilderness, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Ps-Dionysius.

St. Gregory:

The feelings that come to a man who stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts. When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord.

To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of those who seek his Face?

It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.

Ps.Dionysius:

How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all thins while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?