Mystic Junkies

[written long ago, saved for a rainy day when my time to write is small]

I was talking the other day with a sanjuanist scholar (i.e. a scholar of St. John of the Cross), and he made some really fascinating comments which I will attempt to summarize here. As I do sometimes, this will be a blend of my comments and his.

We were talking about St. John’s severe critique in the Ascent of Mount Carmel of what this scholar dubbed “experience-junkie mysticism,” which might be loosely described as a dedicated pursuit and acquisition of spiritual experiences. You could even say that the Ascent-Dark Night was specifically written (for Confessors and spiritual directors) as a sustained critique of such an approach to the Christian life of faith, especially in the Discalced Carmelite Reform which was begun by a nun famous for her very public mystical experiences.

The Sanjuanist Critique

A tiny bit of background to this experiential mysticism. There was a movement begun in the late 15th century in Spain by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a powerful Franciscan reformer-bishop and adviser to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, to bring about a general reform of Church and State in Spain by encouraging a certain brand of mysticism among laity, religious and clergy. Often referred to by the name of its most prominent method of prayer, recogimiento, “prayer of recollection,” this Cisneros-reformation was especially focused around the translation of spiritual texts into the vernacular; texts that emphasized extraordinary mystical phenomena (e.g. visions, locutions, raptures). The core idea was that such visionary mysticism abides at the heart of all previous (medieval) ecclesial reformations, and that it fit well with the intensely apocalyptic air of late 15th and 16th century European Christianity. Cisneros’ initiative gave rise over several decades to a wide diversity of religious reform movements that more or less emphasized various forms of mystical pyrotechnics, as well as a highly interiorized and individualized form of spirituality. One of the more prominent and, from the Spanish Inquisition’s perspective, troublesome branches of Cisneros’ unwieldy reformation were dubbed by Inquisitors the alumbrados, “the enlightened ones.” These late medieval illuminati spread like wildfire throughout Spain and into the Spanish colonial territories throughout the 16th century and beyond. Many of these alumbrados, especially the pious women (called beatas, or “blessed ones”), were attracted to Teresa/John’s reformed Order. For this reason, both John and Teresa felt it imperative to subject the various expressions of the “mystical reformation” movement, and its diverse ascetical-mystical ideas, to a rigorous critique that would preserve the good and excise the not so good.

That is, I believe, why Teresa chose John, the brilliant and rigorous ascetic-mystic, to join her Carmelite reform: to integrate, interpret and interpolate her own mystical charism into the Discalced Carmelite vision and create a spiritual literature specific to its unique demands.

As this was my dissertation topic, I have lots to say more but, for now, this will suffice for background.


I contacted my scholar acquaintance originally to share with him my concerns regarding a variety of contemporary movements in American Christianity, some of which were aversely impacting my work, that embodied a mysticism that was more akin to what I might call a spiritualized psychological binging. Not only do these movements share a resemblance to certain elements of those I’ve mentioned from 16th century Spain, but they also resemble elements of the wildly emotive, experiential and broadly influential American “Great Awakenings” of the 18th and 19th centuries.  In any event, I will not get into the specifics of those resemblances, but rather would like to share some of the insights that came from our lengthy conversation. He was comfortable with my offering his insights here, though they are, as I said, here blended with my own thoughts in the conversation.

There are a lot of parallels between these groups you mention and what John found most troublesome about the alumbrados, at least in regard to those whom he considered off-base.

What John found to be especially mistaken was not their claim to mystical experiences per se — he assumes these things happen — but their well disguised, disordered addiction to spiritual experiences in general; to what Teresa called the “sweets and candies” of the way of perfection. We might better call these “experiences” not mystical per se, since mystical for John transcends the senses, but rather the psychological “kickbacks,” or experiential “feedback” that is produced by religious activities or, if genuine, by God’s activity. But these sensual experiences are inherently ambiguous at best and, at worst, can become dangerously seductive by enticing us to not seek God’s will as much as the pleasure and thrill of more kickbacks; more feedback.

For John, these off-base folks have embarked on a misplaced journey, they’re chasing after the wrong goal. As his co-reformer St. Teresa would put it, “These seek the consolations of God and not the God of consolations.” If John used modern lingo he might call them “experience junkies,” pious men and women who pursue experiences of God with an almost gluttonous appetite, and see religiosity as a way of squeezing out as much spiritual pleasure as possible. These junkies were addicted to the sweet feelings, to histrionic bouts of tears, to visions and locutions that accompanied their devotional practices, and to the admiration of their pious comrades. When they would lose these “goodies,” John argued, they would grow agitated, fret, and strain to get more, assuming they must be doing something wrong or that God was displeased. They would see the spiritual life, John says, as a set of strategies engaged in to get more experiences, as a way to get another shoot-up of these mystical drugs.

John also said that they were compulsive in talking endlessly about these experiences with others, secretly feeding their driven needs for approval or attention with the adulation they received. Though they often put on the appearance of rebuffing the attention with a humble rhetoric, as soon as someone offers a criticism they grow agitated or angry and interpret any critiques as rejections of God. For John, this was just a re-directed form of disordered sensuality, but instead of it being a “carnal” sensuality, he says it’s an affective or spiritualized sensuality. And, as he reveals in his review of the spiritual guises of the seven deadly sins, that may be far worse because it’s so well disguised. While John, of course, allows for sensual experiences of God — he pours out lots of ink speaking about their variety, meaning and means of discerning — he is quick to say that spiritual experiences should never be sought. They should be only accepted if they are genuine, never clung to, and always surrendered back to God once they happen. In fact, he says the safest and best response to a mystical experience is to ignore it for the sake of humility, discretion and pure faith, and if it’s genuinely of God he will make certain the grace intended will be given.

You almost get the sense in the Ascent of Mount Carmel that, in the face of most of the things people would claim as amazing spiritual experiences, John is yawning, really unimpressed by most of it. For him, if experiences are truly from God in the deepest sense, they have already had their effect in the spirit once they occur. Once they happen they should be let go of at once. If we cling to them, become overly curious or fascinated by them, or seek more of the same, the door is flung open to diabolical pseudo-mystic mimicry or to the temptation to squander God’s good gifts on our own ego-driven passions, and not on growth in faith, hope and charity; on a love of the Cross. Satan, he says, is all to happy to provide abundant phenomena, especially if he sees its feeding a need-driven ego. For John, you can avoid all of this very simply by exercising detachment, humility and keeping your eyes fixed on the real goal of the mystical life: loving God and neighbor with the very love of Jesus on the Cross.

John loved the well known story from the Life of St. Antony of the Desert. After having had a vision of the desert filled with snares, he heard a voice command him, “Walk!” When Antony replied in anguish, “What can get me through such snares?,” he heard a voice say, “Humility.”

For John, among the key signs of genuine spiritual experience, and a genuine reception of that experience by a mature person of faith, is growth in self-forgetfulness, detachment, hatred for sin, the virtues (especially humility and charity), love for the Cross and for one’s critics, and the like. And if we want to hear God’s voice, John says, then open sacred Scripture and start praying it. Scripture is the real gold of God’s Voice; the rest, for him, are mere trinkets; or incitements to turn back to Scripture. Experience junkies, for John, always look for new revelations, new words, new sensations, become ever more self-absorbed and flee both hardship and the Cross. The saints, on the other hand, are more than content with what has already been revealed by God in Scripture and Tradition; more than satisfied by the hiddenness of the Sacramental Christ; find faithfulness to the demands of the present moment’s duties as a supreme mode of communion with God; and, the more they “experience” God, the more other-focused, God-and-neighbor absorbed they become, the less obsessed they are with the goodies, kickbacks or feelings feedback. The more genuine the experience, the more interested they are in their present responsibilities, their own state in life calling. In a word, they are more interested in God and his will than in themselves and their will.

And this is all perfectly summed up by that funny play on the word mysticism — myst-I-cism. If it all leads to more mist, I and schism, it’s not from God, i.e. if it leads to unreality fantasy thinking, ego absorption, isolation from the “messy” Body of Christ and the rabble of humanity, it’s fatally flawed.

St. John himself

Let me leave you with a selection from St. John himself. Here he speaks of the spiritualized form that the capital sin of gluttony takes in those who, though well along in the spiritual life, are still in need of deep interior reform and purification. It’s an addendum to the above, is long, and so as I have done in the past I will not post again tomorrow to allow space for you to read it carefully if you wish.

With respect to the fourth sin, which is spiritual gluttony, there is much to be said, for there is scarce one of these beginners who, however satisfactory his progress, falls not into some of the many imperfections which come to these beginners with respect to this sin, on account of the sweetness which they find at first in spiritual exercises. For many of these, lured by the sweetness and pleasure which they find in such exercises, strive more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion, which is that which God regards and accepts throughout the spiritual journey. Therefore, besides the  imperfections into which the seeking for sweetness of this kind makes them fall, the gluttony which they now have makes them continually go to extremes, so that they pass beyond the limits of moderation within which the virtues are acquired and wherein they have their being. For some of these persons, attracted by the pleasure which they find therein, kill themselves with penances, and others weaken themselves with fasts, by performing more than their frailty can bear, without the order or advice of any, but rather endeavoring to avoid those whom they should obey in these matters; some, indeed, dare to do these things even though the contrary has been commanded them.

2. These persons are most imperfect and unreasonable; for they set bodily penance before subjection and obedience, which is penance according to reason and discretion, and therefore a sacrifice more acceptable and pleasing to God than any other. But such one-sided penance is no more than the penance of beasts, to which they are attracted, exactly like beasts, by the desire and pleasure which they find therein. Inasmuch as all extremes are vicious, and as in behaving thus such persons are working their own will, they grow in vice rather than in virtue; for, to say the least, they are acquiring spiritual gluttony and pride in this way, through not walking in obedience. And many of these the devil assails, stirring up this gluttony in them through the pleasures and desires which he increases within them, to such an extent that, since they can no longer help themselves, they either change or vary or add to that which is commanded them, as any obedience in this respect is so bitter to them.

To such an evil pass have some persons come that, simply because it is through obedience that they engage in these exercises, they lose the desire and devotion to perform them, their only desire and pleasure being to do what they themselves are inclined to do, so that it would probably be more profitable for them not to engage in these exercises at all.

3. You will find that many of these persons are very insistent with their spiritual masters to be granted that which they desire, extracting it from them almost by force; if they be refused it they become as peevish as children and go about in great displeasure, thinking that they are not serving God when they are not allowed to do that which they would. For they go about clinging to their own will and pleasure, which they treat as though it came from God; and immediately their directors take it from them, and try to subject them to the will of God, they become peevish, grow faint-hearted and fall away. These persons think that their own satisfaction and pleasure are the satisfaction and service of God.

4. There are others, again, who, because of this gluttony, know so little of their own unworthiness and misery and have thrust so far from them the loving fear and reverence which they owe to the greatness of God, that they hesitate not to insist continually that their confessors shall allow them to communicate [receive Holy Communion] often. And, what is worse, they frequently dare to communicate without the leave and consent of the minister and steward of Christ, merely acting on their own opinion, and contriving to conceal the truth from him. And for this reason, because they desire to communicate continually, they make their confessions carelessly, being more eager to eat than to eat cleanly and perfectly, although it would be healthier and holier for them had they the contrary inclination and begged their confessors not to command them to approach the altar so frequently: between these two extremes, however, the better way is that of humble resignation. But the boldness referred to is a thing that does great harm, and men may fear to be punished for such temerity.

5. These persons, in communicating, strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices. All this is very great imperfection and completely opposed to the nature of God, since it is impurity in faith.

6. These persons have the same defect as regards the practice of prayer, for they think that all the business of prayer consists in experiencing sensible pleasure and devotion and they strive to obtain this by great effort, wearying and fatiguing their faculties and their heads; and when they have not found this pleasure they become greatly discouraged, thinking that they have accomplished nothing. Through these efforts they lose true devotion and spirituality, which consist in perseverance, together with patience and humility and mistrust of themselves, that they may please God alone. For this reason, when they have once failed to find pleasure in this or some other exercise, they have great disinclination and repugnance to return to it, and at times they abandon it. They are, in fact, as we have said, like children, who are not influenced by reason, and who act, not from rational motives, but from inclination. Such persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire therefore, of reading books; and they begin, now one meditation, now another, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God. But God, very justly, wisely and lovingly, denies it to them, for otherwise this spiritual gluttony and inordinate appetite would breed innumerable evils. It is, therefore, very fitting that they should enter into the dark night, whereof we shall speak, that they may be purged from this childishness.

7. These persons who are thus inclined to such pleasures have another very great imperfection, which is that they are very weak and remiss in
journeying upon the hard road of the Cross; for the soul that is given to sweetness naturally has its face set against all self-denial, which is devoid of sweetness.

8. These persons have many other imperfections which arise hence, of which in time the Lord heals them by means of temptations, aridities and other trials, all of which are part of the dark night. All these I will not treat further here, lest I become too lengthy; I will only say that spiritual temperance and sobriety lead to another and a very different temper, which is that of mortification, fear and submission in all things. It thus becomes clear that the perfection and worth of things consist not in the multitude and the pleasantness of one’s actions, but in being able to deny oneself in them; this such persons must endeavor to compass, in so far as they may, until God is pleased to purify them indeed, by bringing them into the dark night, to arrive at which I am hastening on with my account of these imperfections.

9th Century Byzantine icon Taken from


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

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


St. Man

It is the solemn Feast of St. Joseph, foster-father of the Only-Begotten Son, chaste spouse of the All-Beautiful, guardian of Israel’s Shepherd, teacher of divine Wisdom, provider for the Provident God, feeder of the living Bread, builder of a house for the Name. He was a man of eloquent silence, contemplation in action, a master dreamer exiled in Egypt with the One who was himself in Exodus from the Father. Joseph embraced the Immeasurable, disciplined the Lawgiver, lifted the Most High to his cheek and was kissed by divine Mercy. He taught the Word to speak, revealed to humanity’s Bridegroom the meaning of covenant love, and taught the Son to call God אבא, Abba.

What pre-incarnate Wisdom said of his heavenly Father before all ages he could now say of Joseph in time:

…then was I beside him as his artisan;
I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
Playing over the whole of his earth… (Proverbs 8:30-31)

In Joseph the Carpenter, the glorious kingdom of David had returned to the hidden, humble and forgotten beginnings that had once made David  great in God’s eyes (1 Samuel 16:11) . In Joseph the Just, the royal legacy of brutal injustices was redeemed without notice. In Joseph, Adam heeded the angel’s voice in obedient hope, refusing to court the serpent’s hissing invitation to despair. In Joseph God-made-flesh healed the primal divorce of man and woman and joined man to the woman whom God had made “flesh of his flesh.” And Joseph took into his home his bride in whom God made his abode.

How marvelous is this saint!

“Father of the orphan, defender of the widow,
such is God in his holy place.” — Psalm 68:6

I once heard a lecture on fatherhood by Fr. George Rutler back in the early 1990s that rocked my world. Here are some of the notes I took:

God created all men to be fathers, biological and spiritual, and men will be judged by God primarily for the manner in which they fathered the children, and loved the women, God gave them. Men who renounce their paternal call by spousal infidelity, by their deceit or self-indulgence, by their wanton un-chastity or merciless violence become co-fathers with the Devil, who is rightly named the Orphan Maker, the father of lies who estranges humanity from God the Father and creates a culture of god-hating atheism; which is really the rebellion of orphans. Men who refuse to be images of God’s fatherhood in the world by their sins leave humanity orphaned, women widowed and abandoned, and render the eternally running Father temporally immobile, paralyzed, unable to embrace in love his lost and frightened children.

After the lecture, one of the men next to me said, “Definitely time for a general confession.”

Let me end with the words of Bl. John Paul II,

This just man, who bore within himself the entire heritage of the Old Covenant, was also brought into the “beginning” of the New and Eternal Covenant in Jesus Christ. May he show us the paths of this saving Covenant as we stand at the threshold of the next millennium, in which there must be a continuation and further development of the “fullness of time” that belongs the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation of the Word.

May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Drinking Daily at the Well

“Give me a person of prayer, and such a one will be capable of accomplishing anything.” — St. Vincent de Paul

Last week while I was away giving a retreat, and taking time to go over my notes before the next Conference, my mind was unexpectedly drawn into the story of the “woman at the well.”

I was going to be speaking a bit about the primacy of divine initiative in all things (aka grace) and the consequent need for Christians to be first of all receivers before they are givers. In this context, I planned to focus on the need for a vibrant personal prayer life. As I reflected on this, and asked the Lord for light, I had a clear awareness of the fundamental need I have to cling to prayer in my life and work. But let me say, and anyone who attempts to cling thus will no doubt nod in agreement, that the commitment to pray thrusts me at once into what the Catholic Catechism aptly calls the “battle of prayer.”

In my experience, so many of those who work for the Church — myself included — find themselves drawn away from prayer. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s what I’ve witnessed. Why is it so? Well, my own personal take is that the temptation to abandon prayer for such “ecclesial professionals” largely comes from one of two sources. Either it emerges from their (usually) subconscious belief that if they are doing good for God they have a good excuse for not praying, or it comes from the sometimes painfully dissonant struggle that erupts as their personal faith in God clashes with their outer experience of the all-too-human church institutional.Though there are many other temptations that can lure ordained, religious and lay professionals in the church away from prayer, and while it’s a spiritual maxim that the Evil One perpetrates a sleepless conspiracy against all pray-ers, the effects of not praying on ecclesial ministry can be devastating, e.g. burnout, anger, cynicism, loss of faith, hope and charity. As Pope John Paul II once said, “Christians who fail to pray are at risk Christians.”

I had a priest early on in my church career share with me this memorable ditty,

If you don’t cling to God in prayer, you’ll fall down flat in despair; if you don’t pray oft for grace, you’ll wind up flat on your face.

Who needs the drink?

I shared with the retreatants two weeks ago a remarkable reflection I heard at another retreat I gave several years ago for lay ecclesial ministers (who in this case were all women). I had asked these women to take the story of the woman at the well and pray it over in lectio style, i.e. slowly, deliberately, prayerfully, being attentive to what happens deep within as they pray every line, and open to a spontaneous colloquy with Christ. Then we came back together after 45 minutes and those who felt moved to do so shared their insights. One woman, who was a very competent and well respected leader in the local church, shared this brief but extraordinary reflection which she wrote out and gave me permission to (anonymously) share.

…I read the words, “And Jesus said to the woman, ‘Give me a drink…'” When I got to this line, I suddenly felt anger well up. That surprised me. My first thought was: “O God, not you too?” My whole life is already about people needing things from me; when do I get a break? My children, my husband, my parents, my church and now: God! Can’t I get a break? Then I read on as the Samaritan woman protested, somewhat like I had, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Maybe I could have asked the same question this way, “How can you, God, ask me, a creature, for a drink?” But then I persevered and kept reading, and when I came to the words of Jesus, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water,” I began to weep my heart out. I felt Jesus tell me: “I am not here to take from you, I am here to feed you, to care for you. Only if you come to me to receive will be you be able to give to those who need you. Come to me.”

I added to her amazing insight only this,

The beauty of God is that, while he loves us and desires our love, he doesn’t need us. God created us for our good, not his; he asks for our praise and thanks not because he’s a sycophant, but because to do so, as the Eucharistic prayer says it, “profits us for salvation.” What a relief.

I also shared, as I so often do, the old Latin adage, nemo dat quod non habet, “you can’t give what you don’t have.” That goes for everything in life, but most especially it goes for the spiritual life.

Prayer, just do it

The director of my 8 day Ignatian retreat in 2012 hammered me on my proclivity to “white knuckle it” and try to “go it on my own” when life gets hard or high paced. It’s a temptation that most often eats away at my commitment to personal prayer. He reminded me of St. Francis de Sales’ doctrine of proportionality in prayer,

Every one of Christ’s faithful should spend at least 30 minutes a day in quiet prayer, unless he is to be very busy that day. Then, 60 minutes. If not, your soul will not be centered. Your work will not be God’s work, only yours, and the work of a fragmented man at that.

Years ago, I was waffling about my career direction and shared my lack of surety with my wife. She had noticed that I had, for several weeks, ceased being faithful to my early morning prayer time. I would sleep in. I’ll never forget it. She grabbed me by the tie and looked me in the eyes and said with a terribly firm love,

I need you to be a rock for this family, and when you don’t pray you can’t be that. I need you to be a man of prayer.

It was my Rocky-Adrian moment.

At that moment I received the grace of prayer that has never left me.  Truly. I believe that’s a grace from the sacrament of our marriage and the extraordinary faith and love of a great woman who never ever minces words.

So, the message? Drink deeply of Christ in prayer faithfully, daily, or…you’re on your own.

St. Patrick, slave of Ireland

From slavery you escaped to freedom in Christ’s service: He sent you to deliver Ireland from the devil’s bondage. You planted the Word of the Gospel in pagan hearts. In your journeys and hardships you rivaled the Apostle Paul! Having received the reward for your labors in heaven, never cease to pray for the flock you have gathered on earth, Holy bishop Patrick!            – Orthodox antiphon for the Feast

St. Patrick’s call to evangelize the Irish is a wild and absolutely unique story. Born in Britain, he was captured as a young man by Celtic pirates, enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland and, after having risked his life to regain his freedom, said “yes” to a divine call to return to his captors in order to preach the Gospel to them.

Patrick had stunning evangelical success as Christianity swept across Ireland in a short time, and it is a near-miracle of history that the ex-slave Bishop shepherded the notoriously brutal Celtic slave trade industry into an abrupt end.

Among the many characteristics of Patrick that marked the Irish soul, his earthy and no-nonsense humility stands out. Just take a moment to read this brief selection from his autobiographical Confession:

I am, then, first of all, countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.

Therefore be amazed, you great and small who fear God, and you men of God, eloquent speakers, listen and contemplate. Who was it summoned me, a fool, from the midst of those who appear wise and learned in the law and powerful in rhetoric and in all things? Me, truly wretched in this world, he inspired before others that I could be– if I would– such a one who, with fear and reverence, and faithfully, without complaint, would come to the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility.

Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.

And if at any time I managed anything of good for the sake of my God whom I love, I beg of him that he grant it to me to shed my blood for his name with proselytes and captives, even should I be left unburied, or even were my wretched body to be torn limb from limb by dogs or savage beasts, or were it to be devoured by the birds of the air, I think, most surely, were this to have happened to me, I had saved both my soul and my body. For beyond any doubt on that day we shall rise again in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as children of the living God and co-heirs of Christ, made in his image; for we shall reign through him and for him and in him.

St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, pray for us.

Join me in prayerfully listening to the gutsy Lorica (Breastplate) of St. Patrick:

Saved by Love, for Love

alessandro serenelli

An aged Alessandro Serenelli praying in front of St. Maria Goretti’s image.

I recall my theology professor, during a class I had on soteriology (the study of salvation) back in 1992, going on a tangent as he spoke about concupiscence, that disorder in the soul left by sin that inclines us to evil. As I recall, he was making a point he loved to emphasize, that God’s ordinary manner of saving human beings from the rubble of a fallen world is by eliciting their free and costly cooperation with His saving grace. He said (thank God I kept my notes!),

Like a good parent, God doesn’t simply do for us what we can do for ourselves. His grace aids us by enlivening our own capacity to do His will. Were He to do it all for us, we would be rendered helpless, salvation would not be truly human and we would inevitably become spoiled children of God. Rather, God preserves the nobility of our humanity, made in His image, by saving us with us and allowing us to share in His work and accrue merit. God created secondary causes — creation with its own ability to act — because He loves communion and not fusion; persons not puppets…and this saving comes to us in the form of Jesus crucified, the supreme sign of the divine-human intersection ordered to salvation. Salvation is costly, cross-borne, because its healing has one goal: to birth in us the capacity to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ crucified. For us, this means the whole life of virtue. The Council of Trent argued that the reason God left concupiscence behind in us even after Baptism — how easy it would have been if he had simply removed it all! — was “for the sake of the battle.” The nobility of sharing with God in the re-creation of all things, beginning with my own soul! What a noblesse oblige, what a terrible glory He has given to us! Only in a Eucharist celebrating the brutal and bloody death of a God who is love could we ever give fitting thanks for this unspeakable honor!

I thought of this mind-blowing insight as I came across a wonderful quote from Catherine de Hueck Doherty in this week’s Magnificat:

Lent is here to remind us that the mercy of God is ours provided we embrace his law of love; provided we realize that it’s going to hurt, and hurt plenty, but that the very hurting will be the healing. That is the paradox of God, that while you hurt, you heal. That’s true healing.

Salvation, which is a healing of the whole person, comes principally through the daily labor of learning to love God and neighbor under the blazing sun of life’s many hardships; of learning patience and trust, mercy and sacrifice, repentance and forgiveness, prayer in the dark and in the light; of learning how to be loved by God so that I might love like God, forgiven by God that I might forgive like God, nourished by God that I might nourish like God. If we look for healing in hidden rooms away from the rest of humanity, we will find only ourselves; not God. And if we look for salvation to come to us in a moment, to free us from the burden apart from “the battle,” it is not Christ’s grace that we seek. Christian healing seeks the Spirit to transform pain into mercy’s sacrifice, grief into joy-bearing love, wounds into grace-filled portals, as when the deceased St. Maria Goretti appeared to her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, while he was in prison and handed him 14 pure white lilies that bloomed from her 14 stab wounds and brought him to immediate and total conversion. She had been healed by Christ in Paradise only to love her enemy back into life.

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed… — Isaiah 58:6-8

Sursum Corda!

I know a man who suffers from persistent, crushing migraines.

I spoke to him recently on the phone while he was in the midst of one, and in our minute long conversation he said in a faint voice,

I’m offering it up to God. May it do good.

And if you knew this man you would know he meant it.

My spiritual director once said to me, after I finished bitterly complaining at length about a certain trial going on in my life,

You once asked for God to increase your trust in him. Now he has given you a great opportunity to trust and is this all you have? God wants you to offer your trials up to him, not throw them at him.

This reminded me of a quote from St. Francis de Sales:

Many people would be ready to accept suffering so long as they were not inconvenienced by it. “I wouldn’t be bothered by poverty,” says one, “If it didn’t keep me from helping my friends, educating my children, and living respectably.” “It wouldn’t bother me,” says another, “So long as people didn’t think it was my own fault.” Or another would be willing to suffer evil lies told about him as long as no one believed his detractors.

Happy Feast, O.P.!

St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P.
1225 – 7 March 1274

On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom I was named after by my parents, I want to steal a few quotes from Denys Turner’s excellent introduction to Aquinas’ life and thought, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, and roundly affirm what Turner argues is the saint’s greatest quality: his radically self-effacing humility.

Contrasting Aquinas with Augustine, who wrote “himself prominently into nearly every work of theology he composed,” Turner contends that St. Thomas “doesn’t really have a personal style; you have the feeling that for him nothing he writes is his.” His genius, Turner says, is his refusal to be scintillating or spotlight himself. As Turner puts it,

Everyone loves to quote the Thomas who says that it is better to cast light for others than merely to shine for oneself, and truly the Dominican motto, contemplata aliis tradere, the passing on to others what one has encountered in contemplation, is nearly as good as it gets as a précis of Thomas’s holiness.

Pro vobis et pro multis, “For you and for many”

That Dominican motto has served as my personal examination of conscience for years — In what sense have I, or have I not, placed all that I possess and all that I am at the service of God’s glory and the betterment/salvation of others? When I first read St. Augustine’s comment in grad school — “What I learn, I learn that I might give it away” — I suddenly saw my life’s work in a new light. What should motivate me in my studies is not just what I find interesting or pleasing, but what will best serve the needs of those I have been called to serve in the future I am preparing for. It’s the message I ardently desire to share with the seminarians who are preparing to be sealed by the sacramental mark of Christus Magister, “Christ the Teacher” –Your love for those you will one day serve as priests, allow it to open in your mind a ravenous hunger to learn all you can for them.

Thinking with Thomas

To read St. Thomas is to find yourself accosted by order, clarity, precision, breadth, depth. To think with him is to find yourself immersed in a wildly diverse intellectual communion, other minds in quest of the one Truth — Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Heretics, Saints. Aquinas was willing to give anyone a hearing, to welcome them into the ambit of his faith’s quest for understanding. To enter his mind is to enter into a vast, complex yet unified cathedral, and feel your own mind at once dwarfed. As Turner says,

The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas’s into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains.

For those who choose to enter, there joy awaits; joy that emanates from the disarmingly pure heart of this giant of our Catholic tradition. And once God seduces you into the mind of the Angelic Doctor, you’ll fall in love. But if by chance you don’t believe me, let me permit that self-proclaimed “Hillbilly Thomist,” Flannery O’Connor, argue my case:

So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing. In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.

Happy Feast, O.P.!

With St. Thomas now, let us pray:

Umbrellas, sinners and God’s mercy

John 8:2-11

One of the greatest gifts that has come to me from working within the institutional Church over 25 years is having been able to meet and learn from such a great diversity of remarkable men and women of faith. Almost every day yields a new encounter, a fresh dose of wisdom, and I feel it is a noblesse oblige that God has placed within me to share that wisdom for others’ benefit.

Mercy’s way of imperfection

This particular wisdom is used with permission…

I was recently speaking with a woman who shared with me a number of the difficult trials she was undergoing, and it was very clear that she felt her response to those trials was consistently weak, inconsistently strong and overall “pathetic.” She’s a bit hard on herself, I said.

She has been active in her Catholic faith after having left the church many years before in college where so often, as the saying goes, you lose two things: your faith and your virginity. Since she came back to the practice of her faith, she said she “discovered immediately a whole new sense of purpose and comfort in knowing my life always, no matter how bad it gets, has meaning in God.” She added that when she first came back to church, it was really tough since she had lived a “wild life” in college and into her late twenties. It “made living a totally Catholic life super hard, with a million reasons to quit the faith assaulting me every day.”

She said she found strong support in a women’s small faith community at her parish, which happened on shortly after returning. “That group was and is my salvation. Those women, a bunch of them with a past like mine, were always there for me; especially when I wanted to go bad again. We’re like sisters, there for each other.” “Those women” she continued,

helped me experience for myself, personally, God’s mercy. That’s what keeps me going every day, gets me up when I fall, lets me sleep at night when I am haunted by my own sins or failings with my husband and kids and my in-laws or anybody else that pushes my buttons. When I think about all the pile of ‘me-junk,’ I just say: Jesus, it’s all yours, take this mess away and give it back to me when you’re done fixing it. When I do that it’s like a thousand pound weight is lifted from my shoulders. And that’s actually why I’m totally in love with Confession — I give Jesus my heart made of black coal and ask him to make it into a diamond. I always walk out of the confessional feeling beautiful and new.

…so when I see like three people at Confession at Saturday Confession, I think: Hello? People! Duh! Don’t you get it? This is God saying ‘bring me all your crap and all your burdens and I’ll make them beautiful and light!’ I’ve thought God’s made it my mission to do PR work and get more people to go to Confession. Most people just have no clue. I tell my pastor he needs to let all of us heavy burdened people out there who carry guilt and shame all the time that God’s got the perfect weight loss program — his mercy — and its free here at St. X every Saturday!

I then shared with her that fabulous story of the Visitation nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque who, after she had received several visions of Christ and his Sacred Heart, told her mother superior about them. The rightly skeptical Mother de Saumaise, trying to test the truthfulness of her claims, asked Sr. Margaret to ask Jesus in the next vision what Mother de Saumaise’s last confessed mortal sin was. When Margaret (I imagine, reluctantly!) asked Jesus, the Lord replied to her,

Tell her, I forgot.

What a gorgeous manner of expressing Isaiah’s prayerful cry,

You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction, When you cast behind your back all my sins. — Isaiah 39:17

Dismas at the Door

G.K. Chesterton once said that his umbrella helped reveal to him why he knew the Catholic church was for him. He said that whenever he went to the non-Catholic churches, he would customarily leave his umbrella by the back door during the worship service. In these churches, his umbrella would always be there waiting for him when he went back out. But the first time went into a Catholic church to hear Mass, his umbrella disappeared from the back of the church. Someone had stolen it.

His conclusion? Chesterton, the self-confessed “sinner,” came to believe that if the Catholic church offered such a generous and open doorway to the rabble, being a “home” for both sinners and saints, then he had indeed found a home where he could also fumble along into the Kingdom.

Elsewhere, Chesterton says,

Every one on this earth should believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given.

Never lose heart or hope. For those prepared to confess their unworthiness, God’s mercy is unbounded in its capacity to make us worthy, and bewildering in its mysterious power to cause even the Omniscient One to forget.

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