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


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.”


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.


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


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.


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.


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—-
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!):

Healthy avoidance behaviors

The term for an external set of circumstances—whether of things or persons—which, either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.

What is a near occasion of sin.

– Catholic Jeopardy

Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum…

When we say the Act of Contrition at the end of our confession in Sacramental Reconciliation, it contains a phrase that, I think, we don’t often think deeply enough about:

…I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.

Avoiding the near occasions of sin. It is absolutely crucial to reflect daily on how people, places, things, circumstances tend to pave the way for bad choices, destructive behaviors, or simply general mediocrity, as well as on those that tend to open the way for good choices, healthy behaviors and a life of greatness. In other words, we must discern our limits, our weaknesses and our strengths, especially in the light of various influences that prey, for ill, on our limits, weaknesses or even our strengths.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Essential to a healthy spiritual life is our nightly examen (see here for a superb overview of this practice), which is a prayerful review of our day that discerns the manner in which we did or did not do God’s will, examining both the interior and exterior influences that helped shape our choices throughout the day. No man is an island, and we swim in a sea of influences — bodily, spiritual, physical, relational, etc. — that inform our thinking, our desiring, our feeling and our choosing.  In order to grow in self-mastery, in genuine freedom, we must become aware of those influences, discern their origin and impact, and respond in accord with a faith-inspired mindset. But most of all, we must turn to God for aid and not imagine we are Promethean giants who can navigate this sea alone.

Discerning heart

I have a powerful example of this kind of discerning approach, and this time it isn’t related to St. Ignatius! This is an excerpt from a transcript of a talk given by the ever-provocative Orthodox theologian, Fr. Tom Hopko, on the role of thoughts, feelings, memories and external circumstances in the spiritual life. You can hear the whole (55 minute) talk in audio form here. It’s a long excerpt, but it’s so excellent and gritty (which makes it interesting reading!) that I think it’s worth the excess text (which I assiduously try to avoid in this Blog). Because of the length of this post, I will not post tomorrow to give you time, if you wish, to digest this more thoroughly. Now, Fr. Tom:

I knew two young women in my pastoral life over the years who could not go to an Orthodox church and look at the icons. They could not go to communion without having a headache and throwing up and [getting] sick to their stomach and everything. Because when they were little, church was so unpleasant to them. Their mother would pinch them, beat them, drag them to church. The father didn’t want to go. There would be a fight in the family. The mother would throw them into the car. The [kids] didn’t want to go. They got them in church. They made them stand there. And in one of the particular churches, the icons were incredibly ugly. They weren’t nice, beautiful icons. They were… The apostles looked like dwarves, and they were holding the images of their martyrdom: axes and saws and spears and so on. They had big heads and they were very ugly. And Christ on the icon and God the Father was like an old man with a stern look, and his eyes were crossed. And the Holy Spirit was like a big, huge bird with claws. Well, it traumatized and terrified these girls. And they just didn’t even want to go to church. One of them told me—she became a doctor in her old age—she said she could go to a Catholic or a Protestant church where there were no icons or maybe just a few or something, and she could basically hold it together, but the minute she walked into an Orthodox church which was covered with frescoes and icons and the icon screen, she would get sick and want to run away.

Well, those are the kind of memories, thoughts, and feelings we’re talking about, and they have a physical reaction on a person, and a mental reaction, and a spiritual reaction. They do. And we’ve got to deal with them. You can’t avoid them. You can’t repress them. But the method is to flee to God and to bring light, and then the light is stronger than the darkness. The beauty is stronger than the ugliness. The mercy is stronger than the judgment. The comfort is stronger than the pain. That’s what the spiritual life is all about.

We’re going to have prosvoloi, provocations. We’re going to have apyrasmon, trials and temptations. We’re going to have all kinds of attacks of the Evil One and of memories and feelings. We cannot hope for the day when they won’t be there, but we certainly can hope for the day when they no longer touch us. So the exercise, the asceticism, the discipline is all about not engaging them. Not coupling with them. Not giving assent to them. Not joining with them.

One more thing can be said—well, millions more things, but, at least for now just a few things more could be said. One is that usually the thoughts, the memories, the feelings, and the temptations, they have a kind of a routine; they have a kind of a pattern. You might even call it a ritual. I know people, for example, that, if they just go into a room and turn on a television set, sooner or later, or a computer, they will be caught by pornography. So they can’t even turn it on, because if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. Other people, of course, can’t take a drink. If they take one first drink, they’re shot.

I know a guy who is same-sex attracted, and he struggles with sexual passions of the homosexual nature. But this guy told me that every time when he would not do his spiritual reading and say his prayers, but would go across the street to the drugstore and buy a pack of cigarettes and start smoking them, it was guaranteed that he would act out within 24 hours. The first step toward acting out was not saying the prayer and buying the cigarettes.

I know people who would say if they would walk home from work and take a certain street, go left instead of right to get around the block, they will be in trouble. They can’t go left; they’ve got to go right, because if they go left, they’re going to pass a certain store. They’re going to pass a certain place, a certain bar or something. And then, they’ve had it.

So the spiritual warfare also consists in re-patterning. It’s like a person who’s had a stroke: you’ve got to learn how to walk again. And you’ve got to be courageous about it, and you’re going to fall down. And you have to learn how to fall and get up again. When you fall down, it ain’t the end of the world. It says in Proverbs, “A righteous person falls, a wise person falls seven times a day, but they get up again.” That’s why they’re wise and righteous, because they get up again. They don’t stay down.

St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.

And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.

What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.

But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.

But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.

St. Silouan said you know the Holy Spirit is in you if you’re a brave fighter. If you hate your sin and struggle against it. And when you do that, it’s a long battle and you’re not going to be victorious in two days.

I heard once a bishop tell some young people that if they had firm resolve, they could come to dispassion and quiet and peace in one month. I frankly don’t believe that. I think the bishop was wrong. Sometimes it’s a lifetime. But you should never say or put a timetable on it. Even [in] the 12-step program, you learn that you can’t do that. You’ve got to say, “Just for this minute. Just for this day. Just for this time.” Just with this breath, I’m not going to engage that memory. I’m not going to engage that feeling. I’m not going to engage that thought. I’m not going to surrender to it. I’m not going to act out on it.

But I can’t do it by myself, so I’m going to flee to the grace of God. I’m going to read the Scripture. I’m going to read the saints. I’m going to read an Akathistos. I’m going to say a prayer. I’m going to walk around. I’m going to get occupied in work. I’m going to care for some sick person. I’m going to do those things that keep the thoughts, the feelings, and the memories from crushing me. And then I’m going to beg God, “Please don’t let me choose them. Please don’t let me actually will to engage them, affirm them, and to go where they are thriving and where they are destroying people.”

And of course, that means we’ve got to cut off relations with certain people. We just can’t be—and St. Paul said this: “If you go into bad company, you’re going to end up with bad morality and bad behavior, and you’re going to be crushed.” And it’s no sin simply to say, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just can’t hang out with you, because if I do, I’m going to be poisoned by your own darkness and your own sin.”

So it’s violent. And the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent person takes it by force.” He said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off. Better to enter the kingdom with one hand than to perish with two. If your eyes offend you, pluck them out.” Now, of course, this was not meant to be literally taken. You don’t take a knife, and—people who are very troubled, they sometimes cut themselves and so on. This is not—this is of the devil. But spiritually, with the sword of the Lord, to cut off all that is evil, all this gangrenous, all this poison, to take the medicine, the pharmakon that is the antidote to the evil poison in our system. We have to do that.

But we have to do that firmly, gently, not hysterically, not with panic. We do it one step at a time. We do it by [being] faithful in the little things. And the most important point for today’s meditation: There’s only one way we can do it, and that is by cutting it off when it first comes. And that’s how the Fathers, like Nilus of Sinai and Evagoras and others, interpreted that line in the psalm, “On the Waters of Babylon”: “Blessed are they who smash your little ones on the rocks. Alleluia.” Because they say if we don’t smash the passions and temptations and thoughts and memories when they’re still little, when they first come, then they will grow up and they will kill us.

You might even say, following the Fathers, like Porphyrios, don’t even try to smash them. Just run away from them. Flee to God. Don’t engage them at all. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about not letting the poison in. It’s all about not engaging the vision, the image, the fantasy, the memory, the imagination, the thought. The cause of it all are logismoi: thoughts, feelings, fantasies, imaginations, provocations. But we can only be victorious when, by the grace of God and by faith in God and by the Holy Spirit, we do not engage them at all. The minute we engage them at all, we’re lost. Sooner or later, we can fight, we can battle, we can struggle, but they’ve got us. So the key is: know that they’re there. Let them babble and buzz all they want, but don’t engage them. Don’t engage them.

Unite the mind and the heart and call upon the Lord and flee to him. And beg for grace. It’s not going to be magic. It’s not always going to work, but this is the only way it does work when it does work. And as they say in the 12-step program when they—you know, sex addiction and food addiction and drug addiction and alcohol addiction—“It works if you work it, so work it. You’re worth it.” But what is the working? The working is to know that there is a power greater than ourselves. There is God Almighty; there is grace.

We can’t do it, but what is impossible with human beings is possible with God. And it’s impossible even not to engage and to join and to assent to all those evil thoughts, memories, and feelings that assail us day and night. With God, all things are possible. And so, it is possible not to live without these thoughts, memories, and feelings, but it is possible not to allow them, by God’s grace, to destroy and to crush us and, ultimately, even to kill us. There is a victory. It belongs to Christ. It’s given to us. We have to plug into it. And we do that by faith and grace in God, and by an unseen warfare, to take every thought captive for the sake of Christ and by Christ.

And not to engage any thought, memory, or feeling that is destructive. In fact, some of the Fathers say that we shouldn’t even engage the good ones, because we can be deceived. It’s better simply to be calling upon the name of the Lord and seeking the light without actually getting into many of these things.

Let me just end by reading something from St. Peter of Damascus in The Philokalia, a treasury of spiritual knowledge. He says:

We should not be distracted by anything: neither by dreams, whether evil or seemingly good, nor by thoughts of anything, whether good or bad, nor by distress or deceitful joy, not by self-conceit or despair, nor by depression or elation, nor by a sense of abandonment or by illusory health and strength. Nor by negligence or progress, nor by laziness or by seeming zeal, nor by apparent dispassion or by passionate attachment. Rather, with humility, we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, quiet, calm, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves harm ourselves.

St. John Chrysostom has a homily: “No one can harm him who does not harm himself.” And then he [St. Peter of Damascus] goes on to say:

Because of our conceit and our failure constantly to have recourse to God, we should cast ourselves down before him, asking that his will should be done in all things, and saying to every thought that comes to us: “I do not know what you are. I do not know who you are. God knows if you are good or bad, but I have thrown myself, and I shall continue to throw myself into God’s hands, and he will take care of me. He will take care of me.”

And if we do not have anyone to advise us—St. Peter continues—we should take Christ as our counselor, asking him with humility and through pure, heartfelt prayer, about every thought, every memory, every feeling, every undertaking.

And if our sole purpose is to do God’s will, God himself will teach us what it is, assuring us of it either directly, through the mind or by means of some person or in the holy Scripture, and if, for God’s sake, we cut off our own will, God will enable us to reach, with inexpressible joy, a perfection we have not known. And when we experience this, we will be filled with wonder at seeing how joy and spiritual knowledge begin to pour forth from everywhere. We will derive profit from everything—even our thoughts and feelings and memories—and God will reign in us, since we have no will of our own, but have submitted ourselves to the holy will of God, we become like kings, so that whatever we desire, we receive effortlessly and speedily, from God by his grace, who has us in his care.

Let go

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau

There was a priest I befriended back in the 80′s, Fr. Brian, who shared with me a powerful story that I have recounted many times over the years. He was sharing with me stories from his hospital and hospice ministry, and I asked him what he found to be most difficult about serving the sick and dying. He said,

Without a doubt, the hardest part of my work is not facing the physical component of people’s suffering, but the spiritual and emotional pain of relationships gone bad, estrangements among loved ones that tend to get really raw in times of crisis or when death comes. So many people carry within so much pain and they don’t know where to place it. That’s my role, to help them know not where, but in whom to place it. This is what makes my most quoted bible verse so powerful, “Cast all your cares on Him because He cares for you.” While the doctors and nurses tend to the medical needs of the patients, my work is to address their souls, the unseen dimensions of human suffering, the need for meaning, to find friendship with God and forgiveness for the past. And also there’s fear, especially fear. Fear looms very large in the hospital. It’s not home, it’s crisis oriented, it’s filled with machines and tubes and alarms going off. People feel they’re off balance and when the body grows weak, and pain takes away your sense of purpose, you feel helpless and alone. This is the hardest part for me. I’m only one man, and the needs are so huge. I always tell Jesus: “Lord, you have to multiply the loaves and fishes again to provide for the spiritual needs of all these people.”  But you just do what you can do and then when you leave you just give it to the Lord. Many nights I have to pray Pope John XXIII’s prayer to get to sleep, “I’m going to sleep now, Lord, the Church is yours.” That’s the hardest part, not being able to provide for everyone.

Then he told me that really fabulous story I mentioned above. He told me that he had, on a number of occasions, visited this one older gentleman who was very ill, dying, but who was filled with fear of death. He was afraid of letting go of his life, his children and grandchildren, and the many things in this world that were part of his happiness. It seems the man felt he could not be himself, would never be happy, without this world and all the people in it; without being in his home. “So,” Fr. Brian said, “I told him this story I’d heard back in seminary.”

There was an old man on the island of Crete who was loved by all. He ministered to the poor, he loved his children and his grandchildren, and faith in God inspired the good he did and the evil he avoided. People would call on him to settle their disputes, rather than the magistrates, because they knew he would always come up with a just and generous compromise that would make everyone happy. They would come to him for advice, or simply to tell him of their troubles, because he was always ready with a sympathetic ear and some gentle wisdom.

But their love for him was exceeded only by his love for them. To him, every neighbor was a brother or sister, for they all lived on his beloved Crete. In his youth he had fought for Crete, and now that he was old every stone, every tree was precious to him.

When the old man lay dying, all the island mourned for him, but he blessed them and said, “Do not weep for me, for I am going to my Lord, but lay me on the shores of my beloved Crete.” His sons carried him to the seaside and, taking a fistful of the sand of his island in hand, he died.

He immediately found himself at the Gates of Heaven, with Christ waiting to welcome him, saying “Come, good and faithful servant, and enter into the joy of your Lord.” The old man started to go forward, but as he was about to pass the gates, the Lord held him back and said, “Did you bring anything with you?”

“Yes,” said the old man. “I have in my hand the sands of my beloved Crete, my home.”

“To enter,” the Lord continued, “you must surrender all to me and leave Crete behind.”

The old man cried out, “Lord, I cannot do that! I will not! This is my Crete, my home, where I found happiness and love.”

The Lord replied, “You must surrender all to me, my son, or you may not enter,”

“Never!” said the old man. “I will not leave my beloved Crete behind! Never! Heaven would not be Heaven to me if I could not have my Crete!”

The Lord left him there alone.

Time passed, and the Lord returned again to the old man. “Are you prepared to surrender the past to me, to give me the soils of Crete? My son, I once gave them to you, but now you must return them to me if you are to enter into the joy of my Kingdom.”

Over the passage of time, the old man’s hands, which were once clenched so tightly, had opened some and the sands had fallen to the ground. Only a small amount remained.

The Lord took his hand and opened his fingers so that all the sand might fall away. The man was silent.

Then the Lord led him to the gates of Paradise and, opening them, said to the old man:

“Behold, the Island of Crete.”

When Father Brian finished telling the story, the man wept and closed his eyes. Shortly after that, he died.

It is in giving that we receive

St. John of the Cross was, for nine months, imprisoned in a dark latrine, starved, beaten, left without a change of clothes for six months or even access to the Sacraments. And his captors were members of his own Carmelite Order. After his release, the friar who guarded his cell said that as time passed John became more gentle, and his face evidenced each passing day greater and greater joy. In those months, stripped of everything, John experienced transforming union with Christ and penned on scraps of paper some of the most exquisite mystical prose and poetry in the western Christian tradition. Having lost all things and abandoned them to Christ, he received a blinding insight into the divine economy: only that which is given away to God, in and through the neighbor (especially through the enemy-neighbor), is ‘kept safe’ in eternal life. Thus could John, poor, meek, merciful, peaceable, purified in heart, hungry, thirsty and persecuted, say with the serene confidence of unshakable hope,

Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me. What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you.

Let go.

St. John’s sketch of a vision of the Crucified Christ he had “from the vantage of the Father.”

“The Word was made flesh…” John 1:14

[This is a re-post from last year's feast (when the feast fell during the Easter Octave). I felt it was better than anything I could say presently in my busy state, so here it is. Happy Feast!]

As we pass over the Solemnity of the Annunciation today in silence (it’s transferred to after the Easter Octave), I have been thinking about the beauty of this hidden feast — the feast of God’s enfleshment in the womb of Mary. In Jesus, God has forever and ever made our body and soul essential to His existence. God will always have a human body, a human soul, a human will, a human intellect, a human heart, a human smile. In Jesus, God will always love in a human mode, always express His omniscience in and through a finite mind, always reveal His glory in those gaping and never-to-be-sealed Five Wounds that are our sinister handiwork become His merciful artistry. We humans, therefore, come to know, love, taste and see God in the depths of our humanity. Coming closer to God means becoming more human.

We can feel the electricity of Job’s overwhelming awe as he was given a glimpse of what was to come in the Risen Christ:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him: my inmost being is consumed with longing. — Job 19:25-27

Absolutely astonishing. Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.

Every Knee Will Bend

And all this very theological thinking made me recall the beauty and power of the human body as seen through faith, which in turn made me think of Malcolm X.

How so?

When I was an undergrad student, soon after my return to the practice of my Catholic faith, I had to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I found it very powerful.

For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book was the moment of Malcolm’s final decision in prison to convert to Islam, which for him represented the agonizing choice to disavow a past filled with sex, drugs and violence. What struck me most in this scene was the role that his body played in his conversion. I remember setting the book down and thinking, “Wow, faith is even in the body.” It helped me appreciate anew the power of bodily ritual in Catholic worship that gives expression to and shapes our faith.

Here’s an excerpt from the scene:

The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. . . bending my knees to pray – that act – well, that took me a week. You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it.

Forgiving in the flesh

That story in turn reminds me of a personal witness that a man shared in the context of a parish faith enrichment group. He gave me permission to anonymously share it here. The man, who had been married for over a decade, had cheated on his wife over a period of several weeks. Though he finally broke off the adulterous relationship, he carried the secret with him day and night for several more weeks. It was awful. As he put it,

After I had ended the fling, every morning I would rise early to read the newspaper and when my wife would come downstairs to greet me with her trusting and loving smile, and kiss me, I felt like acid was being thrown on my face. To look at her was to see the word “BETRAYAL” written on her forehead; my betrayal. I went to see my priest to confess and he counseled me to reveal to her my unfaithfulness and repair the damage I had caused. I did and it was utterly devastating.

She cried for days, could not speak with me, could not sleep with me. We tried to cover it up in front of the children, but we lived like we were a thousand miles apart. It was pain like I have never known. Day after day. Shame. Pain. Tears. Angry words. All because of my infidelity and I felt I deserved the worst treatment the rest of my life.

But one day she came downstairs on a Saturday morning and stood next to me in silence. I stood up and looked at her. I was afraid. She looked me in the eyes, put her hands on my shoulders and said, with the force of a hundred million atom bombs, “I forgive you.” I collapsed, literally collapsed to the floor. She joined me and we sobbed together. We embraced, we kissed. I looked at her and thanked her, and I can say I will never ever take her face for granted. To look at her face without shame, nothing is more beautiful.

The rest of my life is about rebuilding her trust. That will never go away.

Dragging My Body to God

A final story. I met a young man last year who told me that his conversion to Catholicism from Protestantism came about as a result of the “soul following the body.” Here’s my recollection of our conversation:

When I was still Methodist, I was dating a Catholic girl who loved to go to the Chapel and sit for an hour in front of a fancily enshrined piece of bread to pray. That’s how I described it when I was still Protestant. She invited me to join her to pray, and so, because I loved her, I went with her even though I didn’t “get it” at all. Week after week I would sit there with her, and though it was always a peaceful hour, it didn’t really mean anything much to me. But then…

One week she was out of town and she asked me to cover her hour, so I did. I sat down alone in the chapel and started to feel a little nervous without her, almost even felt afraid of being alone with that piece of bread. After about 30 minutes, I began to feel a somewhat disconcerting and real sense that Jesus was standing there, that his love was flowing from the bread, and suddenly, without knowing why, I found myself on my knees and crying. Thank God no one else was there. It was just this profound sense of being loved. I knew that this bread wasn’t just bread; it was living Bread; it was, as I later would come to find out, really Christ. But I can tell you this, I knew it was true before anyone ever explained it to me. What I now call transubstantiation is completely perfect for explaining my experience, because what lit up that room was substantial, real, in your face, was Jesus radiating from a very particular place in the chapel where he was present in a way he wasn’t anywhere else. Not a generic Jesus everywhere, but Jesus right there, present, pouring out his love all over me.

It’s like she dragged by body to God, and later my soul caught up.


Let me end with a 600 year old eucharistic hymn, Ave Verum Corpus, that honors the life-giving Body of Jesus:

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet
in the trial of death.
O sweet Jesus, O loving Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.

Quelle est la différence?

Gallup poll 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quelle est la différence?

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

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

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

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