Incomprehensible God

Taken from transparentwithmyself.files.wordpress.com

Warning: this post contains a spontaneous and somewhat muddled effusion of thoughts, more than I usually like out of respect for your time and interest. I will grant you a reprieve tomorrow, and beyond.

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Behold, God is great, and we know Him not;
the number of His years is unsearchable…
God thunders wondrously with His voice;
He does great things which we cannot comprehend…
The Almighty–we cannot find Him;
He is great in power and justice,
and abundant justice He will not violate.
Therefore men fear Him.”–Job 36:26,37:5,23-24

I remember when I first thought deeply about the infinity of God. Can you believe I remember things like that? I was in an undergrad metaphysics class and the professor was reflecting on a quote from St. Augustine, “Every infinity is, in a way we cannot express, made finite to God.” As I recall from the lecture, the prof explained that for Augustine infinite numbers actually exist but are, by the very fact of being infinite, not able to be comprehended by finite minds like ours. However, the same infinite numbers, because they are created by God, are comprehensible to Him in whom “infinity” has a radically different meaning from the “limitless sequence” that characterizes infinite numbers. He said something like this,

God is not a limitless sequence of numbers or spaces or moments, but is the pure, limitless, beginningless act of absolute and total simultaneity, i.e. God is all that He is simultaneously, all at once. But even that is misleading, since “all at once” sounds like a split second in time. And if you think of God in terms of time categories the image you’ll get is of a frozen, static God who can’t do anything new because He’s stuck doing everything all at once, in a moment of time that can’t open up into a next moment of time. God is not like that, is not time-bound, but is the creator of time. For Augustine, the best expression for God’s timeless and space-less infinity is the Name He reveals to Moses in the burning Bush, ego sum qui sum, “I am who am,” or qui est, “The One who is.” But how does a creature that only knows time and space speak of God? It’s like the case of a saint who tells us of a vision she [I think he was speaking of St. Catherine of Genoa] has of God in which she sees colors that don’t exist here. After the vision, she fitfully tries to describe those colors to her Confessor. She ends up saying, “Can’t do it!” So we are at a loss as to how we might describe what it means for God to be undetermined by time or by any limit; to be eternal. We can say what infinity doesn’t mean — not finite! — but when we try to say what it DOES mean, the best we can do as philosophers is offer is an inkling, a gesture.

I recall feeling dizzy as I tried to wrap my mind around what it means to say that, as the professor put it, Jews and Christians affirm that God is in-finis, without bounds, edges, horizons, limits. Like a vast sea with no shores. I remember also that he referred to Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s contention that God even has an infinite number of attributes, which means that, in addition to those attributes we would ascribe to God — justice, mercy, faithfulness — there’s more! That would imply a limitless diversity in God’s nature. I thought further, “Infinite attributes? That must mean heaven will be an endlessly surprising journey into who God is. How fun — like a kid in a candy shop!”

It’s likely that Spinoza wouldn’t have thought of this as “fun” in the way I do. But I tend to think (or idealize) that life itself is a form of play, i.e. an endless procession of surprising new moments that kindle the imagination, require nothing beyond them to justify their inherent value and, regardless of how repetitious, never get boring or fail to provide fresh epiphanies of God’s boundless creativity.

Several years later in my theological studies I discovered, via theologian Jean Danielou’s work on St. Gregory of Nyssa, that I was not alone. Gregory argues that in this life and in the next, our journey toward union with God never rests in a final “got it” moment but only transforms from glory to glory. Like a child that runs after a beautiful butterfly trying to capture it, those whom Christ has claimed find themselves endlessly in pursuit of the playfully elusive God of countless surprises.

…but they who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31

This understanding came to shape the way I conceived of theology. If theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding,” then God provides us with a quaerens, a “quest” that admits of no end-game. For me, this is what makes theology so enjoyable, thrilling, engaging, disorienting, challenging and wonder-full as the gift of faith grants to the intellect unfettered access into the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10) and makes the life of thought into a plunge into the deepest abyss or a mountain climbing expedition up the slopes of the soaring Mountain of God. As Danielou says,

There is at once for the soul an aspect of stability and possession, which is her participation in God, and an aspect of movement, which is the ever infinite gap between what she possesses of God and what He is…Spiritual life is thus an everlasting transformation of the soul in Christ Jesus in the form of a growing ardor, increasing thirst for God growing as participation in Him increases, which is accompanied by a growing stability, the soul becoming simple, and fixed ever more firmly in God.

Regarding his last point, how paradoxical it is that the one who surrenders himself to endless movement toward God discovers great stability. As my spiritual director once put it to me when I complained of my tumultuous life, “God is a Rock, but He’s a Rock in a state of perpetual earthquake!” When you sink your anchor in a God whom Gregory calls “changeless motion,” you soon discover that this is precisely what God is: absolutely trustworthy in an unpredictable way. Being fixed in the God who is torrential peace makes life inherently interesting.

Shut down mode

One of my sons summed it up well the effects of this paradox on common sense at the end of a three hour conversation he and I had about God’s eternity. I was reiterating the idea that God’s infinite knowledge has no source, and that God is, in Aquinas’ words, Ipsum Esse Subsistens, “Self-Subsistent Being,” which means God is the un-caused cause of His own beginningless existence. He said,

Okay I have to stop, Dad; my brain shut down.

I wrote later a brief reflection on my son’s comment:

And it’s precisely in that moment of “shut down,” that moment when you really know you don’t know, when you slam against that limits and taste the knowledge of God as beyond all of your finite categories; only in that moment can you really become vulnerable to God as God, to God out-of-the-box uncaged from comprehensibility. But it’s not that you are now free to simply deny the possibility of knowing God, to become an agnostic who realizes there are better things to do than waste your time thinking about the unthinkable. No! Rather, it’s only at that moment of “shutdown” that you become appropriately receptive to the infinite God who leaps out of His mystery, His infinity, His incomprehensibility in order to reveal Himself. Why reveal Himself? In order to open to you knowledge leading into love, a love that leads into union. That union of itty and infinity — unthinkable! — raises the finite creature to the level of the infinite God. Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Divine love overcomes the abyss that separates finite and infinite as the Word born of the Father before all ages is born of flesh, so that we might be born of God, made capax infiniti Dei, “capable of the infinite God.”

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand. — from the  the Divine Liturgy of St James

God’s silence is overcome by His Word, God’s infinite height is overcome by His descent into our depths, God’s mystery is disclosed by His love that cannot remain hidden from man whom He loves for reasons that transcend all reason.

{don’t worry, I did not foist this on my son}

Pope Benedict XVI also expressed this great mystery memorably,

If the painful history of the human and Christian striving for God proves anything, it surely proves this: that any attempt to reduce God to the scope of our own comprehension leads to the absurd. We can only speak rightly about him if we renounce the attempt to comprehend and let him be the uncomprehended. Any doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, cannot aim at being a perfect comprehension of God. It is a frontier notice, a discouraging gesture pointing over to unchartable territory. It is not a definition that confines a thing to the pigeonholes of human knowledge, nor is it a concept that would put the thing within the grasp of the human mind.

Stretching prayer

For people of faith this is not just a speculative theorem. When we pray we get caught up in this mystery. When we pray, if we allow God to be God, we make the words of Hebrews 10:31 our own,

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Fearful, that is, for the small minded who prefer to remain in Egypt, what Jews call mitzrayim, “that narrow place,” rather than go out on a risky exodus across the desert into that “spacious land” of God’s Promise.

I think here of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta’s well-known comment on prayer that, considering she suffered for decades the agonizing expansion of her desire for God through an inner darkness, offers us a compelling (and revolutionary) way for thinking about why we pray; about why peopl of prayer gladly endure every imaginable hardship, dryness and struggle to remain faithful to daily prayer. She says,

Prayer opens the heart, till it is capable of containing God himself.

Prayer stretches us wide and deep. Mother might say to you, “next time you find prayer dry, arduous, aching, or stretching you to the point of painful discomfort, see in it God making you capable of receiving Himself in all His limitless Being and love.”

The goal of prayer is not getting what we want, but “to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).

Madness!

What?

St. Thomas Aquinas expressed his own willingness to “stretch” when Christ confronted him one day with the question, “What do you want?” One night, in the chapel of the Dominican priory in Naples where he was then living, one of the sacristans concealed himself to watch the Thomas at prayer. Evidently it was a sight to behold. He saw Thomas lifted into the air and heard Christ speaking to Thomas from the crucifix on the chapel wall,

Thomas, you have written well of me. What reward will you have?

Thomas, the sacristan said, replied,

Lord, nothing but yourself.

Soon after that experience, St. Thomas’ secretary, Br. Reginald, testified after his death that Thomas had another experience of God during his celebration of Mass that caused him to say afterwards to Reginald,

I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw to me.

I guess finite next to infinite must look like straw awaiting consumption in a vast and endless Fire.

Love without borders

My grandfather (“Pop”) wrote my wife and I a letter several months before our wedding, which I’ve quoted before in this Blog. I think his words articulate far better than I ever could the deepest meaning of divine infinity. Here’s some of what he said,

From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine.” Only “us.” “ours.” I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. And for over 66 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity…faithful love alone is worthy of naming God and a marriage made in Heaven.

So it’s love, above all things, that participates most perfectly in the infinity of God. Love that knows no end, no bounds, no limits. Love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). With love heaven is overfilled. By means of love, one can transform the merest mite into an infinite treasure. A treasure which is, by the way, not for myself only but for all. Infinity would demand nothing less.

“The Widow’s Mites,” Taken from christthesavioroca.org

O Filiæ

Having a teen, and a tween, daughter is definitely a vocation within a vocation for a parent. A pink martyrdom. Nuff said.

But, as a dear and wise friend who has grown children said to me once, “Every age has its beauty.”

It’s hard to let go of their childhood. Really hard. At least for me.

I remember several years ago when my daughter gave me a hand painted piece of construction paper for Father’s Day that said on it,

Dad is a Son’s First Hero and a Daughter’s First Love.

I had to “use the restroom” to have a good sob.

Who am I?

My wife said to me later that night,

Do you have any idea how powerful your love for your girls is? Don’t ever underestimate it.

I try not to.

And a priest in Confession once echoed her words,

God’s entrusted those children to you to imprint His Face deep into their minds and hearts. Be a good artist and make Him recognizable.

Such words concentrate the soul wonderfully.

Original sin is not only the violation of a positive command, but attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man with only a sense of the master-slave relationship. ― St. John Paul II

Fatherhood: my life’s sweetest terror.

Here’s my oldest guitar-wielding daughter now:

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Such Abundance

When our eyes are enlightened by the Spirit, they open to the contemplation of God in the beauty of nature and the grandeur of the cosmos, and lead us to discover how everything speaks to us of Him and everything speaks to us of His love. All this arouses astonishment and a deep sense of gratitude in us! It is the feeling we experience when we admire a work of art or any marvel that is the result of the genius and creativity of man: before all of this, the Spirit leads us to praise the Lord from the depths of our hearts and recognize, in all that we have and are, a priceless gift from God and a sign of His infinite love for us. — Pope Francis

Yes, today I will subject you to yet another reflection on the beauties of the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

The other evening I went for my daily walk on the levee. When I’m able to do it, it’s one of my favorite things to do at the end of a long work day. After a day largely spent staring at a computer screen or digging out of paperwork, it’s especially refreshing to open out into the cathedral of the skies! Sometimes I go with my wife, sometimes with my oldest son. Sometimes alone. This evening I was alone, and the weather was exquisite. There was a warm breeze from the northeast strong enough to keep the gnats at bay, people were out enjoying a walk, bike riding or fishing and, as I walked toward the sun slowly sinking into the western horizon, the deep blue lake water scattered the light in every direction making it nearly impossible for me to see anything other than the ground at my feet.

I happened on two fishermen who had just caught two small bass and had hung them up on a sign that said, “No fishing…” I went up to them to ask what lure they’d used, and, after one of them showed me his lure and explained his jigging technique, he said, “We haven’t been so lucky lately, but you know how it is with fishing. If you’ve got some beer and a friend, it don’t matter. It’s all sweet.”

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As I walked further down, I caught sight of a father and his daughter throwing a casting net together. She seemed to be around 11 or 12 years old. They were talking and laughing, and he was helping her set the net for the throw and cheering her on as she dragged it back in.

I noticed the purple martins, as I did back in March, were ably darting about the levee for their food along with the barn swallows. The terns were diving into the water by the pump station searching for small fish, and the grackles were screeching out their cacophonous and guttural readle-eak amid the budding cattails that line the edge of a tiny inland pond.

I got a text from a friend with a photo of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. I had just seen the movie about his life, The Jewish Cardinal, with my wife and had told this friend about it. The movie was very powerful, a remarkable witness of a priest’s willingness to remain faithful to his divine vocation in spite of the terrible crosses of isolation he suffered. I looked at his face in this texted photo and felt a surge of gratitude for his white martyrdom. It stirred my resolve to keep walking in faith.

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Then I snapped a shot of the sunset and texted it back to my friend, with the words,

Taking my eve walk. I can’t imagine more beauty in life…

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They wrote back,

It is truly beautiful! God is so amazing to gift us with such abundance. It is overwhelming to think He loved us so much that He even gave us His own Son. It blows my mind.

That set my mind to thinking about a comment a priest once made to my father when I was a small child (maybe 7). We were out in a boat in Narragansett Bay, RI, and he said something like this (meaning this is my adult version of the deep impression it left in my memory),

Imagine what it was like for Jesus to look out through human eyes over the creation he himself once called into existence. Imagine the joy of tasting the very delight of man for whom he created all things. Imagine him thinking back to the dawn of creation, remembering in his divine-human mind why he and his Father chose to call all things into existence in the beginning. It’s what must have made him weep over Jerusalem [Luke 19:41-44] as he recalled his ancient laboring over humanity to rescue and call us to himself. I think that’s what faith is, allowing us to see the world through his eyes. It’s more than we can conceive.

Such abundance.

The second to fourth stanzas in the Breastplate of St. Patrick sprang to mind,

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

The sun set and it was time to turn back home.

More abundance.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story
and night unto night makes known the message.

No speech, no word, no voice is heard
yet their span extends through all the earth,
their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

There he has placed a tent for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his tent,
rejoices like a champion to run its course.

At the end of the sky is the rising of the sun;
to the furthest end of the sky is its course.
There is nothing concealed from its burning heat. — Psalm 19:1-7

 

Your Personal Eschaton

On March 24, 1980, while saying Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed by a paid assassin during the offertory of the mass when the priest offers the gifts of bread and wine as a sacrifice to God. Taken from cacina.wordpress.com

Do something politically incorrect every day to stay in shape for the Eschaton. — Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh

The Eschaton, of course, refers to the glorious return of Christ at time’s end when He will judge the living and the dead and will, as David Bentley Hart tersely words it, “judge much of history to be damnable.”

This quote from Fr. Kavanaugh, like many of his pithy phrases that drip with irony, captures the tensions latent in a Christian’s witness to the coming Kingdom of God, i.e. that “normality” for people of faith will always find itself an abnormality, more or less awkwardly out of step and in tension with the dominant culture of postlapsarian (sinful) humanity. Even as the faithful are called to consecrate the world to God, to submit the world to a sustained epiklesis, we cannot be so naïve as to think that the world as a whole gratefully awaits the coming of the Refiner’s Fire.

As with Archbishop Oscar Romero in the moment of his martyrdom, we must realize that the act of offering the world to God for consecration is supremely subversive, dangerous and threatening to those invested in maintaining to their own advantage the world’s disfigurement. Like him, we may find ourselves in the cross hairs of others’ fear, anger and hatred as we seek to reclaim the artifacts of culture — music, politics, business, law, economics, literature, marriage, sex — for the Transfigured One who makes all things new.

Walking Liturgies

Our Catholic theology of the Liturgy proclaims that the Eschaton is, under the form of sacramental Mystery, already upon us, crashing into our world in the Ascending Christ’s falling-like-dewfall Spirit, translating this world into the next by a transubstantiating heavenquake. We think here especially of the Holy Mass, in which the Risen Christ comes to us bearing the entirely of the celestial wedding feast of Paradise, i.e. the Mass is the fons et culmine, “source and summit” of the Church’s mission to make present God’s Kingdom “on earth as in the heavens.” Liturgy thus conceived is what the emissaries from the pagan Prince Vladimir reported back to him after experiencing for the first time the Divine Liturgy celebrated at the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 988:

Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.

But we also proclaim that, by Baptism and Confirmation, every Christian has been rendered into a ceaseless Liturgy, a new creation raised from the watery womb, reborn from above. We proclaim that every Christian has been made a priest, altar and sacrificial victim on, in and through which this world becomes susceptible to the Life-giving and Truth-bearing Spirit of Jesus. By means of our daily fidelities and our acts of prayer, we become for the world a mini-Eschaton, the End and Consummation of all things already now at work in us, joyously threatening with rebirth a world grown old in sin.

The world has become our Cross on which God consecrates. A world-made-Cross represents the threatened, fearful response of a fallen world when confronted with the prospect of resurrection; of a corrupt world confronted with the prospect of incorruption; of a sinful world confronted with the prospect of mercy; of a dying world confronted with the prospect of new life. To be Christian is to be co-crucified with Christ, is to co-confront the world with the prospect of its own restoration, reconciliation, redemption, re-creation and every other imaginable re- that, though it may be judged by the world as “incorrect,” is nothing other than the world’s — and God’s — deepest longing.

But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation. — Galatians 6:14-15

“Answer me, LORD! Answer me” — 1 Kings 18:37

St. Edith Stein, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14, 1939 (three years before being gassed at Auschwitz), wrote these words (referring to the Nazis) that I will leave you with today. She was truly a New Elijah who brought into the camp of the pagan priests of death the Sacrificial Fire of God.

More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonor than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the Cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ’s cross after him. Therefore, the Savior today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.

Wisdom, let us attend!

You know how once in a while you meet someone that knocks your socks off and deeply unsettles you precisely because what they say, and who they are, is to true and real that it cuts right to the core of you? I’ve had such an encounter over the last several years with two different men, one Vietnamese, one Nigerian, and I’d like to share their words here for your benefit. I will presume on their consent, and hopefully this brief post will spread to you some of their sagacious contagion.

I love the phrase, “sagacious contagion.” You know, one day this past semester I was walking down the hall at the seminary and a staff person shouted out after me, “Look! There goes a walking hyperbole!” You have to admit, it was quite a bizarre thing to say. I was not offended by his comment, though I thought it was a bit exaggerated. Aside from weirding me out, what it did do was make me even more away how much I am infatuated with the power of language to magnify things and render them larger than life for those, like me, who tend to miss the countless tiny epiphanies that dot our landscape every day.

But I greatly digress.

Cardinal Insight

I had the amazing privilege of interviewing Nigerian Francis Cardinal Arinze,  Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (whew), while I was serving as a Catholic radio show co-host in Iowa. He was there to give the keynote address at a Catholic conference, and made time, at the fraternal encouragement of Des Moines’ Bishop Richard Pates, to sit down for a nearly hour-long interview. He is a brilliant and holy man who exudes both conviction and humility. After the interview was over, and my friend Lisa Bourne had taken photos (like the one below), I asked him if he had a moment for a question. We stepped off to the side of the room and I asked him, “What advice would you give to me as a catechist and as a theologian?” He replied, without taking even a moment to think, “Are you married?” I replied, “Yes.” Again he queried, “Do you have children?” Again I replied, “Yes.” Then he said,

Well, you know that your first duty is to be a good husband and a good father. That’s more important than catechist or theologian. So, first you must get your priorities right and be faithful to your first vocation. Anything else I could say to you about being a theologian or a catechist would be nice, and I gather you work hard at what you do or you wouldn’t have asked for my advice, but if I had one thing to say to you today it would simply be to love your wife and children, help them become saints, and the rest flows from there. Okay?

I was so unprepared for that reply that I awkwardly said, “Okay. Yes. Good. Thank you, Eminence. Will do.”

Pray, right?

I had an equally amazing privilege meeting a 90+ year old Vietnamese gentleman, and his wife, last year. He and his wife had come to visit the seminary and go to Mass. I saw them at Mass in the front pew and noticed how intensely he participated in the Mass. They came to lunch afterwards in the seminary dining room. I sat with them at their table and spent the next 45 minutes speaking with him (his wife smiled but did not seem to speak any English). Though I struggled to understand everything he said through his thick accent, I was able to discern the main lines of his story. He told me about life growing up in poverty in Vietnam, about their families’ immigration to the U.S., and about their love for the Church and the priesthood. He asked me what I did at the seminary, and when I told him I was Academic Dean, responsible for the intellectual formation of the seminarians, he became very animated and said,

Oh! What an honor! Oh God has blessed you. Do you know that? Do you see God chose you? To help make priests of Jesus Christ. Make them holy priests. How unworthy! Do you know that? We are all unworthy! But God has chosen you to do this. And do you know what the secret is to doing good work? Being holy. You must be holy. Do you know how to be holy? Praying! You know what else? Praying! And holding on to Our Lady. And the Rosary. Do you pray the Rosary? You must! Do you think you will make it if you don’t? You won’t! Pray the Rosary, okay? Stay close to Our Lady, okay? Do you understand what I am saying? Oh God has blessed you! But you do nothing without God, right? And Our Lady. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Like my conversation with Cardinal Arinze, I felt sucker punched when he was done and said something inane like, “Yes, right! I agree. I will! Thank you!” And I wanted to go to Confession right away. Because of the intensity of the conviction I experienced as he spoke I felt like — this sounds crazy, I am sure — he exposed and saw all my sins and weaknesses.

I thought later, why was I so affected by his words? It was the way he said it, the passion and love in his voice, the way his eyes looked into mine as he leaned across the table, smiling and speaking with such energy. It was also the power of a long life of fidelity, of suffering, of praying for so many years that gave his words power to the heart. It was as if Christ Himself were peering into my soul through him. As early fifteenth century English anchoress Julian of Norwich beautifully puts it, it seemed clear to me that this man and God were oned.

After he was done with his monologue he returned to his quiet, reserved self and finished eating. It’s not something I will forget. Later that night when I was praying, I had this thought that at my judgment before Christ this Vietnamese man and his wife would be standing there next to Jesus, smiling and saying, “Well?”

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Laudámus te

The Ancient of Days (1794), Watercolor etching by William Blake. Taken from wikimedia.org

Beauty is gloriously useless; it has no purpose but itself. ― David Bentley Hart

My spiritual director from the early 1990’s once pressed me to focus on praising God Praise, he said, is crucial to a healthy spiritual life as it seeks to honor God simply for being who He is and not for what He can give me. He counseled this new focus because when he had asked me that day what role praise had in my prayer, I shared with him that it was really a meaningless word in my prayer life.

In much the same way as Muslims recite the “99 beautiful names of Allah,” he asked me to write out a list God’s attributes, as many as I could conjure in my mind, and make a litany of praise that lauded God for being, for example, just, infinite, peace, mercy, truth, beauty, goodness, Trinity, and so on. He asked me to pray it every morning first thing, and to pray it slowly, allowing myself to linger over attributes that grabbed me. Very powerful. As I would pray through this list I would often get “stuck” on beauty. Psalm 27:4 stuck in my heart:

One thing I ask of the Lord;
this I seek:
To dwell in the Lord’s house
all the days of my life,
To gaze on the Lord’s beauty,
to behold his temple.

As David Hart says above, God’s beauty serves no useful function, but is merely the excessive and wasteful overflow of the magnificence of God’s esse, His being in all its eternal splendor.  Beauty is the showing of who and what God is. How delightful it is to pause from the day and simply say to God, “I praise you for your beauty, O God.”

And I cannot help but say here, as I say ad nauseam, that divine beauty shows itself most perfectly, and so calls for the highest praise, precisely here:

Crucifixion Altarpiece (detail) – Matthias Grünewald. Taken from wikipaintings.org

Turn Your Praise

After praying this litany for a few months, my director asked me what fruits were I had derived from this spiritual practice. I said that the number one fruit was that this litany had worn down, in a good way, my tendency to make prayer utilitarian, i.e. God I need this, she needs that, help them with this, thank you for this other thing, etc. It made me lose my focus in Him and also made my prayer slide over into thanksgiving that God is who He is. That God is as He is is wonderful beyond all words, right? But more, thank you, O God, for being all of these for us! In His great economy, He places all of His attributes in our service, to serve our happiness and joy. It makes you want to explode with joy.

After I excitedly shared these fruits with him, my smiling director paused and said,

That’s so good to hear! But there’s one more fruit that I’d like you to glean from this, but this one will require you to work. I want you to act toward others in this manner, to look for discreet opportunities to praise them simply for who they are. Search out some laudable attribute and find subtle ways to magnify it; even secret ways where they won’t know you have found a way to allow others to see some good characteristic in them. And especially practice this with those who have far more attributes that you don’t find especially praiseworthy.  Ask God to reveal these to you, and often you’ll discover no one has ever taken time to do this for them because they are so difficult. Do this for a long time and then share with me the fruits.

My director died two years after this conversation. I’m still working on it…

Captivating Fallen Catholics

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1773) by Pompeo Batoni, Taken from i.huffpost.com

A few years ago when I was living in Iowa, I was invited by the pastor of a parish to collaborate in an initiative he had spearheaded to invite fallen away Catholics home. The initiative, part of a five year plan, was multi-pronged and, while I was still living there, began to have some real success on the ground.

Captive Catholics

Among other things, we devised some creative ways to make use of the “captive audience” moments that every parish has access to, e.g. Christmas, Easter, Ash Wednesday, infant baptisms, weddings, funerals, first communions. These are times when Catholics who normally would never darken a church door find themselves face to face with the liturgy, the faith community and with the clergy. These are graced moments of opportunity, moments when the Church should unsheathe her best evangelizing weapons: intercessory prayer, evocative preaching, dynamic catechesis, a warm welcome and proactive outreach, clear communication of parish ministerial services and opportunities for faith community involvement, information gathering unrelated to money, follow ups, and so on.

I remember at one of the committee meetings when we were discussing these various outreach strategies, one of the women in the group made a remarkable point:

I think these are all great ideas that the Holy Spirit is inspiring. But we’d just better be sure that if we invite these people home to the Church that they find Jesus here waiting for them and a community worthy of the name “faith family.” If RCIA’s any indicator, we’d better take this seriously. After people go through RCIA’s dynamic process, its welcoming small faith community and its powerful Easter Vigil, the dust settles, they fall into step with “regular” Catholics and find themselves saying, “Where did all the Catholics go? Isn’t anyone excited about this stuff?”  That stats say that after 5 years something like 60% of converts stop practicing. So if we’re not ready to challenge the regular Catholics to be a community of faith worth being part of, no point in inviting these folks home. We need to ask, “Come home to what?”

Parishes, parishes, parishes

Her point is powerful and very important, and, in the U.S., it places parishes at the epicenter of any and all successful welcome home initiatives. As Russell Shaw once said, “In Europe it’s in eccleisal Movements that people are gathered back into the Church, but in the U.S. it’s the parishes. Americans do parishes well.” And if the center of effective regathering is the parish, the center of the parish is the parish priest, who incarnates for those who are far off, in an irreplaceable way, the fatherly and ever-welcoming Christ. Through his personal holiness and prayer, his witness of love, his preaching, his beautiful celebration of the liturgy and sacraments, his effective shepherding, etc., he serves as a key to the success of renewal. As Archbishop Curtiss once put it, referring to a speech by Pope Benedict,

Benedict XVI asserted that no one in the world today knows people better than the parish priest. He knows their struggles and weaknesses, he knows their hungers and dreams, and he knows their basic goodness. No one is better able to relate people to the suffering and death of Jesus, and to the hope of resurrection, than the parish priest. No one is able to help people discover the presence of Jesus and his action in their midst than the parish priest. No one is better able to help people be reconciled with the Lord and with each other than the parish priest.

It is to priests that people will come with their doubts and confusion, with their suffering and loneliness, with their need for reassurance and encouragement, and their hope for the future. People come to priests unmasked in the sacrament of reconciliation. No one in any other profession has this possibility of knowing people in the intimacy of their inner hearts. No one is better able to bring healing and solace to troubled souls than priests because they are the conduits by which Jesus reaches out with forgiveness and love to his people.

Thank God for our parish priests, the unsung heroes of the Church who serve on the front lines. We pray for you and we love you!

Get ready, here they come!

The pastor had a brilliant idea along those lines, as the Sunday before Christmas and Easter he would say to the whole congregation,

Guess who’s coming next week? Yep, the C&E Catholics. And it’s our God-given task to make them feel welcome and connected. You’re my ambassadors. You’re Christ’s ambassadors. Help me welcome them back home and keep them home.

I never actually made it to any of the Masses where he did this, but I think it’s a brilliant idea. And though none of these things in and of themselves are a sufficient response to the “fallen away Catholic” problem, we have to start somewhere and trust God will work through our “widow’s mites.”

Jesus Vid

One of the last things I did with this parish committee was to develop a video that would be given out as a DVD to newcomers, inquirers, infrequent Mass attenders, registered parishioners who had ceased to attend. It’s thrust was to be spiritual and inviting, focused on Christ and specific to that parish community. I was asked to write the script and we worked with a professional videographer and a producer who helped pull it all together. Here’s what we came up with: