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?

Offering up our Owning up

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

Yesterday I mentioned a powerful homily I heard at a private retreat, preached by the retreat master, on the problem of suffering and evil in the life of Christian faith. The focus of the retreat was on cultivating a spirituality of the Cross, and his particular interest was in helping us learn how to trust God enough to give ourselves entirely, without fear’s reserve, to the hard work of the spiritual life; and that even, and especially, in the darkest times. It’s true enough, he said, that for so many of us the larger part of our failure to progress in Christian perfection is staurophobia, fear of the cross. This fear takes many forms. It could look like anything from an unwillingness to work hard at the difficult virtues, to a reluctance to die to our cherished vices or disordered attachments, to a mistrustful fear that God will not shepherd us along the way into the final safety of eternal life. That last one, he said, is a cherished lie of the Enemy, who Itself hates the cross with a perfect hatred.

The retreat conferences were sweet but, like the scroll John ate (Rev. 10:9), while they were sweet to my mind they were bitter to my passions and will!

If you, O Lord, laid bare our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you. — Psalm 130:3-4

third point he made, which I’d like to mention briefly today (and I am tight on time, which is to your benefit!), was about how we are to face the sufferings caused by our own bad decisions and stupidities, our own sins. His last Conference, incidentally, was on how to redemptively face the sufferings caused by others. Maybe another day I will sum that one up here.

He commented on how important it is for us to inventory our own lives, our own decisions and personal responsibility, whenever we face hardships. We would do well to ask, In my present hardship and trials, where am I paying the price for past imprudence, impatience, rash judgment, anger, lust, greed, envy, pride, laziness, lack of discretion, ignoring good advice or warnings, and so on? While in our culture we are quick to blame our folly on factors beyond our control, the Christian must honestly come to terms with free will, personal culpability and discern his or her own responsibility in the unfolding of life’s events.

Though we need not identify specific sufferings and trials directly with divine “temporal” punishments (this, he said, is too complex and dangerous to sort out in detail), he continued, nor do we need to wallow in paralyzing guilt or self-pity over our misdeeds, we should humbly and honestly own our own responsibility in the present state of affairs, repent of wherever we may have been culpable for sinful decisions, and face with serene hope the hardships that have flowed from our poor decisions with trust in God’s merciful, redemptive, purifying Providence. “We must face our sinful past with Peter’s bitter tears, humility and rekindled love, and not with Judas’ self-centered, self-reliant, self-pitying despair,” he said.

How many times, I thought, I have moaned and groaned over trials that are largely attributable to my own bad past decisions! And it’s true enough to say that there are few things more distasteful than enduring the protests and kvetching of someone who bemoans the real-world consequences of their own poor decisions. My spiritual director would often say to me, “Your failures are supposed to food for your virtue and the greatest source of your humility. So get to it!” How marvelous, he’d say, that every off-key note you insert into God’s unfolding symphony can become, when you humbly surrender your junk to His mercy, the first new on-key note in a new movement within that symphony.

The Paschal symphony! It became a new theological analogy for me to think about everything. The terrible dissonance of the Cross, resolved by God into a new and unspeakably lovely harmony rising from the Body of the Risen Christ. What a fresh view of what Liturgy is! For me, that’s the heart of hope that motivates me to get up after I fall.

“Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton”

I had a friend years ago who was what you might call an “old salt” or a brilliant rustic. He blended faith into his acerbic, curmudgeonly personality in a singularly unusual fashion. He would often say that the greatest cross God gave him was himself (though that may be said to simply be a universal truism)! Anyway, once when we were having a “holy smokes” chat (cigars and God-talk), he shared with me in a particularly rare and vulnerable moment that he had once made a “deal” with God years ago that went something like this (used with his permission):

Lord, if I willingly accept all the thorns you permit in my life as merciful remedies for my past, present and future sins, please do me the favor of sparing me Purgatory and making me into a most unlikely creature: a saint.

What I love about his approach is that, while he knows his own follies wreak plenty of havoc in his life, he’s not scrupulous about it, but very matter of fact in admitting he’s had a hand in his own travails and God can turn those in his favor if he’s humble and trusting about it all. To me, that’s humble in the deepest sense: the ability to look at our broken reality truthfully, without rationalization, but to do so through the lens of mercy that alone can make of our imperfections a way to perfection. Only the humble can be hopeful, while the arrogant despair. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos starkly puts it,

Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.

Salvation is about God, and while rationalization makes salvation about me, repentance and and hope make salvation about God. My rustic friend trusts that God’s mercy is what counts, and his own willingness to say fiat voluntas tua, “Thy will be done.” He trusts that whatever may come to pass in his life will yield ultimate good for him if, as he said, “I let God have His way and not insist on my own.”

His words reminded me of King David’s response to the prophet Gad when, after he had yet again sinned against the Lord, David was offered by God through Gad the chance to choose among three different punishments for his offense. When Gad said, “Which do you choose?” David responded,

I am greatly distressed. But let us fall into the hand of God, whose mercy is great, rather than into human hands. — 2 Samuel 24:14

Et clamans voce magna Jesus ait: Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’” — Luke 23:46

 

 

Paschal Providence

I heard a really superb homily a number of years ago at a retreat, and it was on the mystery of suffering and evil as seen through the lens of faith in Christ. That’s a rare homily to hear anywhere, but it’s undoubtedly true that people of faith long to hear the “Gospel of Suffering,” as Bl. John Paul II dubbed it in his own post-assassination-attempt meditations published as an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris.

[As this post will not be a comprehensive exploration of suffering-evil's "mystery," let me recommend four readings if you want more: A. Nichols' chapter on the philosophical-theological issues at stake; R. Shaw's theological-existential reflections; Peter Kreeft's concise summary of an apology on suffering; and D. Hart's challenging musings on the deep structures of the theological problem of evil-suffering.]

It was the kind of homily that makes one search through their wallet for a piece of paper to write notes on. The quotes from the homilist I include here are all “glossed,” meaning I wrote them as an interpolation mixed with my own simultaneous insights. So it’s a hybrid homily.

The homilist made several excellent points, but I will only comment on two of them here (I’ll hit a third tomorrow).

Divine Providence, not Fate

First, he addressed the way Christians view divine Providence, or God’s wise governance of history. “Divine Providence,” he said, “is the key to finding meaning in life and history.” He noted that the Christian tradition (drawing from its Jewish heritage) rejected a pagan worldview which asserted that history, and even the gods, are governed by a universal and impersonal force called Fate, which is itself essentially blind to justice, terrifyingly capricious and ultimately unconcerned with humanity’s temporal or eternal well-being. Rather, he argued, Christianity proposed a radical Jewish view that all things and all history and under the sway of one Creator-God who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-good, and that the ultimate defining power that stands as judge and ruler over the cosmos is divine hesed-emet, “steadfast mercy.” And even more specifically for Christians, steadfast-mercy as it is revealed fully in Jesus crucified, dead and risen from the grave.

This, he said, was arguably among the greatest thought-revolutions of the ancient world, and one that, as a church history professor of mine once felicitously worded it, “elicited from pagan converts a collective sigh of relief,” i.e. so that’s what stands behind this worn and weary world. Deo gratias!

The homilist continued, saying that though the exact nature of how God governs a history marked by oscillations of good and evil without overriding creatures’ own natural freedoms is largely shrouded in mystery, there are some things we can affirm. One of them, he said, was powerfully stated by John Paul II in his superb book, Memory and Identity, where the pontiff said,

It could be said that human history is marked from the very beginning by the limit God the Creator places upon evil.

God’s Providence, therefore, guides history by limiting the progress of evil, which only advances as far as God permits. The space of this divinely limited permission is, he contended, a “safe space” where we can “hide,” as the psalmist says in Psalm 91, under God’s sheltering wings in absolute trust. This is really, he said, what the sixth and seventh petitions in the Lord’s prayer are about (“lead us not…deliver us”), and is what St. Paul has in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:13,

God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.

The idea really runs through the entire biblical narrative and stands at the epicenter of the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, death, burial and descent into hell is evil’s farthest boundary, the edge of God’s No, while the resurrection, God’s Yes, is the sealing of that boundary’s Gate by which redeemed humanity passes into the Paradise of eternal well-being.

Permitted in view of…

Then he noted, briefly but succinctly, that within those limits God permits evil and suffering only in view of the “greater good” he draws from it (again, think here Paschal Mystery as the interpretive lens). But he added an important qualifier:

We should not think of God’s permitting evil in view of some greater good as God somehow positively desiring evil things to happen to make even better things happen through them. No! Rather, God permits evil only inasmuch as He foresees greater goods can be drawn out of them by His Providential plan. While you might say God’s permission for evil is the “space” required for the evolution of finite freedom toward infinite perfection, you should not say that God wills evils in the same sense that he wills goods, or even in the same sense as He wills the goods drawn out of the permitted evils.

This is important because it means that God’s ordained will (i.e. what He directly and positively wills) and His permissive will (i.e. what He allows but does not directly/positively will) are both defined by His good-will, i.e. His love. He always and in all things desires and wills the ultimate and final good for all. That’s really important to remember if you’re going to have a place to drop your anchor in the storms of suffering; it’s where hope finds a sure hold, the rock of God’s good-will that’s backed up by an infinite power and wisdom by which He is able and willing to accomplish that good-will.

This, he said, is the rock-bottom foundation of our absolute trust in God’s provident care for us, and is what St. Paul meant when he said in Romans 8:28,

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

And it’s for those “who love God” not because God is some sycophant who benefits only His devotees, but because such “lovers” alone are able to pattern their lives in harmonious accord with the patterns of Providence, which are the patterns of love. And that love looks like Christ, who is “the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully [revealing] man to man himself and [making] his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

Divine Providence, I.N.R.I.

I’ll try to keep this short for fear of excessive length). The second point he made (alluded to above) flowed from the first, and that is that God’s Providence, the divine care we entrust ourselves to unconditionally, is to be understood only through the lens of the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s Providence is a “paschal providence.”

He quoted the Latin dictum, per cucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light,” and said that we simply cannot comprehend the divine-human meaning of evil and suffering as a Christian unless we saturate our own “linguistic universe” with the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) refracted through Christ’s traditional seven last words. This was a wonderfully new thought for me! He said,

The Seven Last Words of Jesus sum up, you might say, a Christian grammar of faith in the night of suffering; a faith that engages both a sinful, fallen world and a silent God in a very specific manner. This vision of faith is only intelligible, you might say, from the vantage of a dying God who, though struck down, looks up in trust and dies in the hope of “the joy that was set before him.” But the fact is that this language, these 7 words, apart from faith, are folly, absurdity, madness, scandalous. Those who make that language their native tongue will be seen as fools, even as they become capable of a hope and a love that are truly otherworldly; supra-human.

In case you are not familiar with the tradition list of those seven last words, let me share them in summary for here:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. John 19:28: I thirst.
  6. John 19:29-30: It is finished.
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Horizon-stretching!

For me, those insights were earth-shaking, horizon-stretching ones that pulled together things I knew already in one way or another, but joined them into a new and fresh portrait. Seeing my whole life, my own (weak and fitful!) personal trust in God’s provision for my welfare through the translucent icon of a Crucified Christ through whom all of history finds its meaning, judgment and fulfillment, was, let’s say unsettlingly comforting. It also gave me a new theological lens through which to read a saying my very first spiritual director shared with me when I would fret about the twists and turns of my life,

Trusting God only means something when you’re suspended naked above Golgotha. No need for trust when you’re building tents on Tabor.

[These references, if they are not clear, are to the sites of Jesus' crucifixion (Golgotha) and transfiguration (Tabor).]

When Divine Providence becomes our vision

I will end this unwieldy reflection with a quote I have shared before. It’s by the Russian saint-martyr, the eldest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess St. Olga. Shortly before her murder by the Bolsheviks in 1917, she penned a prayer that reflects this brash trust in God’s “paschal providence,” and bears within it the refracted grammar of the dying Christ:

Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, our neighbor’s evil to forgive; and the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet.  In days when enemies rob us: to bear the shame and humiliation, O Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, bless us with prayer and give our humble souls rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.

St. Olga Nikolaevna Romanova from http://upload.wikimedia.org

Shabbat

from sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

Today is the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat, a day of ceasing from all servile labor in which God’s people breathe deep the sweet fragrance of the Torah and exhale on high a new song of praise and thanks to their Creator and Redeemer.

The Sabbath, commanded by God to shatter man’s slavery to unrelenting work, creates a free space in time for joyfully and thankfully receiving the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God. It also creates a space for us to remember the mirabilia Dei, “the wonderful works of God” that have taken place in history as the eternal God again and again broke into time to save humanity and establish with us an everlasting covenant of mercy.

For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday, the 8th and final day of creation, the day the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death, the Sabbath is especially a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. Liturgy is, you might say, the God-designed manner by which each man and woman enters into the restful Sanctuary that abides at the thrice holy Heart of the life-creating Trinity. On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge into Him, to eat and drink of His immortal life and love. Sunday is our weekly foretaste of that entry into the Unthinkable, the Unspeakable, and Holy Mass is where we amble into the veiled threshold of Mystery.

Not a bad reason to plan your Sunday trek to Mass as a day “set apart” for God.

To-be

As an aside, regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight in February that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7th (which I won’t indent to keep the italics):

Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “everything” for which we give thanks – an opening into a certain “mysticism of being” (or maybe an ontological mysticism) that claims within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over the surplus of meaning, the superabundant beauty that impregnates the Genesis 1:31 “very good” fact of existence itself, i.e. that even before meaning and goodness and discernable purpose are located by us within in distinct āctūs, “acts” of being (e.g. my health, the birth of a child, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud), meaning and goodness and purpose worthy of laud are already/always found simply and without qualification in that fact of esse, of “to-be” itself, regardless of the particular existential colors being presents in any given moment. Just “to-be,” as a reception of the pure-gratuity of God’s eternal-creating Act, should suffice to vacate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. And every moment of to-be that is this received within such a “eucharistic heart” wells up through us, blended with Seraphic hymns, into imperishable eternity.  This point is what for me gives such force to Meister Eckhart’s catastrophically simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” It’s been a revolution within a revolution within a revolution for me.

Cahill’s Shabbat

I recall the day I first read through Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews. I was bowled over in particular by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. These insights made me grateful in a new way for this singular gift the Jews bequeathed to the world and to the Church, and it made me more keenly aware of the tragedy of a Christian people who have largely forgotten what a precious pearl they have to offer the world. Here’s the quote that really took me:

No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation). In this study (or Talmud), we have the beginnings of what Nahum Sarna has called ‘the universal duty of continuous self-education,’ Israel being the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit – and a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, considered slaves.

JP2, We  You

One last point, to avoid making this post obscenely long.

Soon to be Pope St. John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here), and it’s well worth reading. It’s theologically and historically rich, and is filled with plenty of excellent practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite 2 paragraphs in the document. It’s a tad long, but worth the read.

Imagine a world of 2+ billion Christians carrying this out every 7 days. Now, let’s pledge to move from image to reality…

The Eucharist is an event and programme of true brotherhood. From the Sunday Mass there flows a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful, beginning by inspiring the very way in which they live the rest of Sunday. If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behaviour that we cannot be happy “on our own”. They look around to find people who may need their help. It may be that in their neighbourhood or among those they know there are sick people, elderly people, children or immigrants who precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering. It is true that commitment to these people cannot be restricted to occasional Sunday gestures. But presuming a wider sense of commitment, why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into people’s lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table.

Lived in this way, not only the Sunday Eucharist but the whole of Sunday becomes a great school of charity, justice and peace. The presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his people becomes an undertaking of solidarity, a compelling force for inner renewal, an inspiration to change the structures of sin in which individuals, communities and at times entire peoples are entangled. Far from being an escape, the Christian Sunday is a “prophecy” inscribed on time itself, a prophecy obliging the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the One who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and new sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). In the Sunday commemoration of Easter, believers learn from Christ, and remembering his promise: “I leave you peace, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), they become in their turn builders of peace.

 

Spent Love Wins

“Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude…The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar

A few scattered thoughts on a Lenten Friday.

I was recently talking to some seminarians about how Catholics view the Gospel of Prosperity, which (in caricature) essentially affirms that following Jesus leads to temporal surplus and worldly/physical well-being.

The Catholic view, which of course cannot be justly summarized in a quick phrase, might sound like this: following Jesus means that we will be given all that is necessary to carry out our personal vocations, to become the sort of saint God made us to be, and that any temporal surplus and well-being that may come our way is an evident sign of His love for all those whom He has placed in our sphere of beneficent influence. In a word, following Jesus means the Cross, which is the supreme symbol of human and divine life broken and poured out “on behalf of all and for all.”

The saint says with gut-level conviction: “My life is not my own. It belongs to God ‘and the children that God has given me’” (Hebrews 2:13), and those “children” refer to any and all whom God places under our care.

St.Paul refers to the blessings of prosperity this way,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich…You are being enriched in every way for all generosity. — 2 Cor. 8:9; 9:11

Unworthy

Let me share a story that Fr. Tom Hopko referred to in a lecture he gave once on the Cross. It makes my point in a very startling way.

Mother Teresa was being interviewed by a reporter who complained that she (Mother) was healthy, while those she served were sick. The reporter said, “If God supposedly loves them so much, how is that fair that they are sick and you are well?” Mother replied, “If I am blessed with health, it is so that I can spend my health in caring for the sick.” The agitated reporter then went on to argue the unfairness of the general human plight of suffering. Mother attempted to respond by averting to the Christian story of the tragedy of sin and suffering, and God’s compassionate desire to share our sufferings in Jesus. “But,” the reporter interrupted her, “you, you yourself do not suffer. How is that fair? Why do they suffer but you do not?” Mother replied, “Yes, you are right. I am not worthy to suffer so near to Jesus as they do, but I have been made worthy to be near the suffering and love Jesus in them.”

Gasp.

Spent Love Wins

Worthiness. Suffering. Love. Compassion. Health, Sickness. All is gift, inscribed with a law of love and received in order to be given. All. Even the darkest elements of life, the worst of the worst, because of the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection become worthy offerings as darkness has been re-purposed by God and filled with a love stronger than death; a light blazing from the Body of Christ rising from death. God is love, and it is love alone that grants enduring worth to all things. Love, which is to will the good of another, “wins” in those who choose to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ crucified.

The choice to love thus, super-human as it is, must always be preceded by the consent to be loved by the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, God desires to be allowed to love us. To turn a phrase from the old Baltimore Catechism, God made us so that He might “know, love and serve us in this life and be happy with us forever in the next.” Pray on that for a time. And only those who really and truly believe in, or, better, into this God can look and act like Him. As 1 John 4:10 says it,

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

Ignite

On this Lenten Friday, when we reflect on the infinite lexicon of love compressed into the “word of the Cross,” a lexicon we are called to master and employ by the eloquence of our lives, let me leave you with these words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.

Matthias Grünewald, 1510

Fasting

Today I’d like to serve you a plate of wisdom on fasting from our Catholic tradition. May it deepen your commitment to this essential labor of a healthy Christian faith life.

“Do you fast? Then feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, do not forget the imprisoned, have pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, calm, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious, so that God might accept your fasting and might plentifully grant you the fruits of repentance. Fasting of the body is food for the soul.” —St. Basil the Great, 329-379 A.D.

Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, however good they are in themselves, do not constitute the goal of our Christian life, although they serve as a necessary means to its attainment. The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Fasting, vigils, prayers, alms-giving and all good deeds done for the sake of Christ are but means for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But note, my son, that only a good deed done for the sake of Christ brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is done, if it is not for Christ’s sake, although it may be good, brings us no reward in the life to come, nor does it give us God’s grace in the present life—St. Seraphim of Sarov (a famous and highly revered Russian Orthodox saint, 1754-1833 A.D.)

“This is the charity or fasting that our Lord wants! Charity that is concerned about the life of our brother, that is not ashamed – Isaiah said it himself – of the flesh of our brother. Our perfection, our holiness is linked with our people where we are chosen and become part. Our greatest act of holiness relates to the flesh of our brother and the flesh of Jesus Christ. Our act of holiness today, here at the altar is not a hypocritical fasting: instead it means not being ashamed of the flesh of Christ which comes here today! This is the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ. It means sharing our bread with the hungry, taking care of the sick, the elderly, those who can’t give us anything in return: this is not being ashamed of the flesh!…The most difficult charity (or fasting) is the charity of goodness such as that practiced by the Good Samaritan who bent over the wounded man unlike the priest who hurried past, maybe out of fear of becoming infected. And this is the question posed by the Church today: Am I ashamed of the flesh of my brother and sister…When I give alms, do I drop the coin without touching the hand (of the poor person, beggar)? And if by chance I do touch it, do I immediately withdraw it? When I give alms, do I look into the eyes of my brother, my sister? When I know a person is ill, do I go and visit that person? Do I greet him or her with affection? There’s a sign that possibly may help us, it’s a question: Am I capable of giving a caress or a hug to the sick, the elderly, the children, or have I lost sight of the meaning of a caress? These hypocrites were unable to give a caress. They had forgotten how to do it….. Don’t be ashamed of the flesh of our brother, it’s our flesh! We will be judged by the way we behave towards this brother, this sister”. — Pope Francis

The penitential practices suggested by the Church especially during this Lenten season include fasting This means special moderation in the consumption of food except for what is necessary to maintain one’s strength. This traditional form of penance has not lost its meaning; indeed, perhaps it ought to be rediscovered, especially in those parts of the world and in those circumstances where not only is there food in plenty but where one even comes across illnesses from overeating.

Penitential fasting is obviously something very different from a therapeutic diet, but in its own way it can be considered therapy for the soul. In fact practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening to God. Fasting is to reaffirm to oneself what Jesus answered Satan when he tempted him at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Today, especially in affluent societies, it is difficult to grasp the meaning of these Gospel words. Consumerism, instead of satisfying needs, constantly creates new ones, often generating excessive activism. Everything seems necessary and urgent and one risks not even finding the time to be alone with oneself for a while. St Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever. “Enter again into yourself.” Yes, we must enter again into ourselves if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake but indeed our personal, family and social equilibrium itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. The effort of moderation in food also extends to other things that are not necessary, and this is a great help to the spiritual life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand. This principle can be appropriately applied to the mass media. Their usefulness is indisputable, but they must not become the “masters” of our life. In how many families does television seem to replace personal conversation rather than to facilitate it! A certain “fasting” also in this area can be healthy, both for devoting more time to reflection and prayer, and for fostering human relations. — Bl. John Paul II

“In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God…the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice must be rediscovered, and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel…Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.

At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, Saint John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?” (3:17). Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up (cf. 2 Cor 8-9; Rm 15, 25-27), the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast (Didascalia Ap., V, 20,18). This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent.” – Pope Benedict XVI

Preach it, Preacher!, O.P.

One of the best parts of working at a seminary, aside from the privilege of forming future priests, is getting to hear some really excellent homilies. In particular, we have a Dominican (i.e. “Order of Preachers”) priest who is just a superb orator. His own favorite quote captures the heart of his style,

A [preacher] who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology. —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

His name is Fr. Philip Neri Powell, and he’s got a sense of humor and a joy worthy of St. Philip Neri. This last Friday he preached a homily that knocked my socks off, and I asked him if I could post it here. Gladly, he said yes. His language in the homily was reminiscent of that other Dominican tertiary, St. Catherine of Siena:

O fire of love!
Was it not enough to gift us
with creation in your image and likeness,
and to create us anew to grace in your Son’s blood,
without giving us yourself as food,
the whole of divine being,
the whole of God?
What drove you?
Nothing but your charity,
mad with love as you are!

So, without further adieu, here’s his homily:

3rd Week of Lent (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Francis Tarwater finally sees his chance to baptize the “idiot-boy,” and he takes it. Throwing the boy into the lake, he does the deed and in the process drowns him. As with most of Flannery O’Connor’s “preachers of nihilism,” Tarwater is compelled by a prophetic mission, and ruinously haunted by the Devil. This tension explodes when Tarwater tries to fulfill a promise he made to his uncle to baptize the boy. When he tries, the Devil tempts him with disobedience, saying, “If you baptize once, you’ll be doing it the rest of your life.” What the Devil knows about Tarwater that Tarwater doesn’t know about himself is that he loves. He loves his uncle. He loves the “idiot-boy.” He loves the idea of being a baptizing prophet. And so the Devil says the only thing he can to pull Tarwater away from his promise, “You have to quit confusing a madness with a mission.” When Jesus commands us to love as God loves, to love neighbor and self with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, I think, “Madness!” We can’t survive in this world if our mission is to love as God Himself loves. If we’re to survive, we must stop confusing our mission with the madness of divine love. But that’s the Devil talking, telling me what I want to hear.

Hearing God’s word of love and receiving His love as a gift is not easy. Israel, so often on the receiving end of both God’s love and His wrath, knows this better than anyone. The Lord sends Hosea to His people with a message, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord, your God; you have collapsed through your guilt.” Sounds simple enough. Repent, turn around, and go back to righteousness. But repentance requires more than a muttered “sorry ’bout that.” Repentance requires a fundamental transformation of heart, mind, soul, and strength. It requires a new creation, starting over on the right path in mercy. This doesn’t sound so bad until I realize that true repentance is made manifest by an act of mercy: I forgive those who have sinned against me. If my repentance doesn’t culminate in an extravagant outpouring of forgiveness from me, then my repentance is incomplete. How can I say that I love as God loves if I cannot or will not forgive my enemies? Thus, the Devil calls Tarwater’s mission of love “madness.” And urges him to stop confusing this madness for a mission. To forgive those who have sinned against you is a sure sign of repentance, and a measure of one’s distance from the Devil. So, of course, the Devil wants you to nurse your wounds, to glory in your victimhood, to wallow around in self-pity and hurt. He wants us to forget that the madness of love is our mission.

As difficult as it might be for us to love as God loves, to forgive as we have been forgiven, we cannot forget that He promises us His assistance. He says to Hosea, “I will heal their defection. . .I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them. I will be like the dew for Israel.” We also have the comfort of knowing that Christ’s command to love is a command. Not a suggestion, a hint, or just one option among many. A command. Lord, give what you command, and command what you will. But be careful with this prayer. Before you offer the sacrifice of your will to God’s will, know that there is a madness in His love, a madness that will become your mission, a mission that will attract the voices of the Enemy to pull you away from your anointed task. These dis-easing voices have names: Excuse, Entitlement, Vengeance, Petulance, Stubbornness. But God’s healing graces have names too: Responsibility, Generosity, Mercy, Patience, Obedience. And His names – received in absolute gratitude with abundant praise – will turn the madness of our sin into the divine madness of love, a love let loose to bring the world to kneel.

 

Christ, Hearer of Sins

Orthodox Confession

I have always found sacramental Confession to be powerful. It keeps me accountable for my sins to God and to another human being. And is that not the essence of the meaning of the Incarnation, of being saved by a God-Man and not just by God alone? Confession also allows me to exercise my “sacramental imagination” as I come to this or that priest — Fr. Bob, Fr. Dennis, Fr. Luis — and to see not only this particular man, but Christ. Such an imagination is not a mere work of mental conjuring, though, but rather the effect of divine grace in the soul opening the mind’s eye to the presence of Christ alive in His Mysteries. It’s a gift from God to see the world thus, and is something you should not only practice in your reflective prayer (for example, engaging in St. Ignatius’ imaginative prayer), but should earnestly pray for — an awakening of the Spirit’s gift of understanding that allows you to fathom the unfathomable depths present in the “Sacramental Ocean.”

To help me cultivate that power of spiritual sight, I read, prior to my own Confession, the words an Eastern Orthodox priest speaks to the penitent just before his or her sins are confessed:

 Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me: but tell me, doubting not, all things which thou hast done: and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His holy image is before us: and I am but only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all things which thou dost say to me. But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, thou depart unhealed.

The Gift of Priesthood

I experience such gratitude after every Confession not only for God’s inexhaustible mercy, but also for the priest’s sacrificial gift of himself to hear my ugly sins and bear them up into the Heart of Christ. We should express our gratitude! A priest I used to go to Confession to regularly, as a “confessor,” would always say to me at the end,

Now that the Lord has freed you from your sins by means of me, a poor sinner, pray for me to God that I may not myself be lost but receive the same mercy He has freely given you this day.

What an important reminder that is to the faithful to pray for priests, for we rely on their self-giving and sin-bearing love to make present to us the saving Mysteries of God.

Priest-sinners

Thinking about this also makes me think of the powerful witness Ordained clergy offer when they themselves go to Confession. I knew a Pastor who, at the seasonal Penance services in his parish would begin the private Confessions by having all the priest-confessors go to each other first before hearing the confessions of the lay faithful. It was very moving and communicated a powerful message.

“I am a sinner”

Let me end by allowing Pope Francis, the sinner-Pope of Mercy, to speak to us about the beauty of this Sacrament.

But if a person, whether a layperson, priest or sister, goes to confession and converts, the Lord forgives. And when the Lord forgives, he forgets. This is important. St. Peter committed one of the biggest sins ever – he denied Christ – and he made him pope. The sincere and humble admission of one’s weaknesses, of having “a thorn of Satan in my flesh,” shows that the power of salvation comes from God, not oneself. – Pope Francis

Watch here as Pope Francis puts these words into action:

 

Theological Tapestry

Unknown Weaver, Flemish (active 1470-1490 in Tournai) Source: wikipedia

I view my work as a theologian largely as a work of weaving, creating a colorful tapestry composed of others’ insights, experiences and stories that, taken together and arranged according to ordo caritatis, the “order of charity,” displays more fully the beauty of Christ “come to full stature” (Ephesians 4:13). Everything I say, I have stolen. I’m a legit thief, I guess you could say. So every day I try hard to listen carefully and watch attentively for the colorful threads that are everywhere, all around us, and try later, in a prayerful moment, to worthily stitch them into a work of art.

Today, I want to share two of the more lovely threads I have come across.

Relentless Love

First, I want to tell you the story of two women I have come to know. They don’t work anywhere associated with my work and I will slightly alter the details to ensure anonymity. They both serve in a diner and over the last year I have come to know their stories because, let’s just say, they’re very chatty.

The first woman is in her late 50′s. She’s a widow and has several adult children. One of her daughters has three children of her own, fathered by two different men, is not married and is not interested in raising those children. In fact, she moved away and left them with her mother. So this grandmother now cares for her three grandchildren in her tiny apartment, works two nearly full-time jobs and is putting the children through school.

The other woman is in her 60′s. She has an adult brother in his 50′s who is severely handicapped and lives in an assisted care facility. She was once married but her husband died young. She presently lives with her boyfriend of 20 years, who does not work and is on disability, and she visits her handicapped brother every morning of every day, before going to work at one of her two jobs, just to make sure he takes his medicine. She has adult children as well who don’t help her financially at all, but amazingly she does not hold it against them but blames only herself for not being a good enough mother. To top it all off, one of her sons was killed in a gruesome accident, leaving his wife and children without support.

They are two tragic figures in a morally messy place who, in spite of it all, are filled with an irrepressible zest for life and a steely resolve to live each day so focused on others’ welfare that they simply don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves. In fact, they’ve never voiced a single complaint about their own plight, only about the plight of others. They’re both Catholics and have serious faith, but it’s very understated and homely faith, truly the embodiment of 1 John 3:18,

Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

That’s all amazing to me, and makes me never want to complain about any of my piddly woes. But here’s the part that, for me, is the scarlet thread of rarest beauty. Before Christmas, the first woman came to work crying because she simply did not have the money to buy gifts she so desperately wanted for her grandchildren. The second woman, a woman of meager means, grabbed her shoulders with obvious affection and said, giving her a wad of money, “Here, take this for them.” Both of them now crying, the grandmother resisting the gift but at last overcome by the force of her coworker’s no-nonsense insistence, the whole scene was just otherworldly; like watching a movie. Extraordinary, humbling, an epiphany of God, a sacrifice of two bodies offered up pro multis, “for many,” That what fuels the liturgy of heaven on earth, a worthy offering that, brought to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, saves the world.

Ferocious Love

The second “colored thread” I wish to share with you is from a dear friend of mine in Tallahassee, Florida, named Kathy Behm. I had the privilege of walking with her, as a sponsor, through the RCIA process into the Catholic Church. Kathy’s “a brand plucked out of the fire” (Zechariah 3:2). She came on the retreat I led a few weeks ago in Tallahassee and shared with me on the last day of the retreat a poem that she had penned during the retreat. I was so moved by it’s beauty, I asked if I could post it anonymously and she said yes. But she allowed me to say that it was hers. I’ve left it exactly as she gave it to me, and am certain you will feel blessed to be allowed to listen to her heart sing to God. Truly, this is the greatest gift of my work as a theologian: that I get to receive the beauty of human language offered to God in sacrifice and then I get to give it all away.

FEROCIOUS LOVE OF THE LORD

O Ferocious Love of the Lord
who hunts me down relentlessly
You tear and rend
My heart——-until I bleed
Stains of sin.
Precious Blood—–Fount of Life
Course through my veins
Until you are the beat of my heart

O Jealous Lover of my soul
Your Passions will not rest
Til you have all of me.
Such ruthless love
Shatters me,
All that I thought I was
All that I thought you were
Is but dust.
Breathe life into this clay
Call forth out of this dark void—-
Life
So that all I am not –will become
all that we will be.
The Lord says,
“At the end of you is Me,”

O my Beloved OBSESSION
Ravished by love I sought you
But I can not find you.
Pierced with distress I stumble upon you
But is this truly you or is it me.
Is this my Beloved Lord?
Shattered and blood stained.
I can not recognize you
Help me to see you in
The messiness of the slaughter
I see you now you gaze at me
And I dissolve.

Ferocious, Relentless, Jealous God
You spent yourself for me.
I am the handmaiden
Of the Lord,
Be unto me
according to your Passions.

By Kathy Behm
Lenten Retreat with Tom Neal 3/8/14

 

A Theology of Yosemite

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whenever I take time to pray out in nature, I often will remember that this world’s astonishing design reflects the “dream” God had before creation when he wondered in Trinitarian council, “What sort of world shall We create?” To gaze on the “cosmic art” is to see something of the Artist’s mind and character, to grasp something of his eternal dream; vast, mysterious, powerful beyond imagination. But it’s only in prayer that we can see it in that way. As St. Maximus the Confessor said, “In noetic prayer we can see the divine thoughts that lay behind each element of creation.”

In that vein, I encourage you to take 5 minutes of your time to watch this visual feast called “Project Yosemite.” It’s an opportunity to gaze on Emerson’s “envoys of beauty” in a way you have never before (an thank you, Ellen, for this video link!):