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

.

MLK & St. Basil the Great

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion in the U.S., Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a portion of one of his essays and maybe whet your appetite for seeking out more of his work.

+++

Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.’”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”

Read other essays at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/albert-raboteau

Theology of Bodily Pain

“Dear Celine, sweet echo of my soul! If you knew my misery! Oh! If you knew… Holiness does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, in feeling them! … It consists in suffering and in suffering everything. Holiness! It has to be conquered at the point of the sword, one has to suffer, one has to agonize!” — St. Therese of Lisieux

This ended up being longer than I wanted. As with the golden calf Aaron made (Ex 32:24), I just sat down at my laptop and before I knew it, out came this long post.

I shared in a post the other day some of the insights had I gained from Dr. Veronica Rolf’s book, Julian’s Gospel, that I read over Christmastime. It’s a scholarly book about the 15th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Reading this book made me re-appreciate the incredibly rich and unique theological vision of this solitary hermit. Most people who have heard of Julian would associate her with her highly popularized phrase, “all will be well in all manner of being well.” For Julian this phrase of “ultimate wellness,” which in her work always refers to the present life only as seen through the lens of the “eschaton,” the end of history when Christ will return to shepherd his people into the New Creation and bring an end to the progress of evil in the Final Judgement, gives to every moment of life a sense of fullness and completion.

What really struck me as I read Rolf’s book was Julian’s profound emphasis on the positive and deeply spiritual meaning of bodily suffering. In this Julian is not anomalous in her thinking, as this perspective was the theological consensus of medieval Christian Europe. In brief, Julian and her contemporaries understood bodily suffering to be a privileged means of entering into intimate communion with the Risen Christ. Let’s take a moment to think about this together.   

Holy Communion

In the Christian spiritual tradition, the path to communion/union with the Trinity in Jesus Christ was an irreducibly complex reality, and various spiritual schools and authors each offered a unique emphasis. Some emphasized the primacy of intellectual communion with Christ (e.g. knowledge of God in faith), others volitional (e.g. love of God through the virtues), others affectivity (e.g. spiritual feelings of longing for God or compunction over sins), and still others in the primacy of Sacraments (e.g. Baptism, Eucharist). But within the Catholic spiritual tradition, it is bodily suffering that plays a privileged and almost sacramental role in opening us to an ineffably intimate communion with God in his paschal mysteries. Whether it be in the midst of the martyr’s agony, the agonies of the sick or those who suffer from chronic pain, the hardships of the penitent, or the countless daily discomforts that attend life in this “valley of tears,” physical pain offered to a man or woman of faith the singularly graced “embodied” opportunity to share in the suffering of God in Jesus Christ Crucified. 

The Visitation

Theologically speaking, Christians affirm that every aspect of Christ’s human life opens up for humanity a fresh portal into the mystery of God’s limitless love. God clothed himself in human frailty in order to achieve “nuptial” union with each human person. From the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, God’s Son made his own every detail of human life, rendering all of those details capax Dei, capable of participation in God’s own eternal life. Conception and gestation, birth and childhood, marriage and family life, eating and drinking, adolescence and adulthood, manual labor and study, music and play, night-long vigils of prayer and sleep, reclining and journeying, learning and teaching, boating and fishing, growing angry and grieving, feeling joy and laughing, being tempted and afraid — all of these human realities were taken up by God and came to define his immutable and eternal divine existence. In Jesus, God will forever see through human eyes, think in concert with a human mind and love in harmony with a human heart. Absolutely everything of human life and culture and existence, in Jesus, becomes a divinely, redemptively charged locus of the wedding of the finite and the infinite, of the created and the uncreated, of the earthly and the heavenly, of God and man. But above all else, it is in the violent execution of Christ, in its every detail, that the veil between infinite and finite, God and humanity is sundered; that we are granted unfettered and unthinkably full access to the deepest mysteries of God.

Because Passion of Jesus stood at the epicenter of God’s saving plan, Christians have thought of bodily communion with Christ’s own pains as being rife with spiritual power, and as wonderfully subverting the twisted logic of sin and death by transforming — through sacrificial love — what is worst into what is best. In this Christ-world where victimized Lambs defeat victimizing Dragons, the inglorious specter of suffering begets a vision of divine glory, and non-violent resistance to violence brings into being a new heavens and a new earth where all is made well in all manner of being well. Again, just as Christ’s myriad bodily wounds — meditated on in great detail by medieval saints — were made glorious and life-giving in the Resurrection, so will the suffering bodies of those joined to Christ in Baptism be made vessels of glory. For medieval Christians like Julian, this theological vision transformed physical suffering into a sacred offering, into a veritable “liturgy of the body” through which St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:12 could become a way to holiness for all sufferers:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

Sacramental Pain

For saints like the stigmatized Francis of Assisi, Christ’s violent Passion was an event of unthinkably intimate divine-human communion that could be best understood in nuptial terms. The Cross was the supreme moment of Christ’s self-emptying love for his Bride, the Church, which rendered the Cross, in the words of Thérèse of Lisieux, “our marriage bed.” There was a very intense awareness in the middle ages that the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of communion with God, contained in a most remarkable and substantial manner the Passion of Christ. Though many Catholics these days likely do not make the clear link between the Holy Mass and Christ’s brutal death, our ancestors in faith unquestionably did. To receive Sacraments was to receive the wound-bearing Risen Christ.

Fr. Aidan Nichols offers, in his book Epiphany, a vivid description of this link between the Eucharistic liturgy and the details of Christ’s Passion:

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the “aversio” of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

While medieval Christians viewed suffering as a “school of discipline” for training oneself in virtue and self-surrendering trust, or as a vehicle for purification, detaching us from our sins and imperfections, it was really this “mystical” or “hidden” meaning of suffering that I have alluded to above that imbued bodily suffering with its deepest meaning. Suffering, united to Christ, became a co-redemptive mode of self-offering that deepened one’s union with Jesus and one’s participation in the divine life. To embrace bodily pain in the economy of divine love is to embrace God in Christ — or, rather, to be embraced by God in Christ.

But nota bene…

It seems important to complexify this picture a bit and note briefly here that Christians also understood that palliative acts of mercy for the suffering, and the medical quest for bodily healing, are also absolutely essential to the what Catholics refer to as “integral salvation.” In its more orthodox forms, the traditions of redemptive suffering never considered pain as a good in itself (i.e.e masochism), and does not require that Christians actively seek out or, worse yet, inflict suffering on others. Neither does our tradition bind us to heroism in embracing suffering. Heroism in any form, while always an option that can be chosen in response to one’s personal vocation, is never strictly required of anyone.

What the tradition we speak of here does do, though, is reveal to us the wildly hopeful and shocking Good News that those inevitable and unavoidable bodily sufferings that accompany a fully-lived Christian life, or that simply come with life in this “valley of tears,” are in truth experiences of a transforming communion in love with our crucified and risen God, Jesus Christ.

See Bl. John Paul II’s Salvifici doloris for a fuller treatment. Interesting to note that JP2 wrote this Apostolic Letter after he was shot in 1981 by Mehmet Ali Ağca.

Fides Qua, I believe

St. “Padre Pio” showing the stigmata in his hands

Imagine now not only marveling at such a vision of bodily suffering from afar, but owning it in order to see and experience the world that way. That was precisely how Julian saw reality, and it was precisely in the midst of an agonizing illness that she entered into deep and abiding union with God and received her shewings, her “revelations” of the mysteries of God given to us in Jesus Crucified.

This vision of faith has become a radically foreign way of seeing the world, strange to the eyes of late modernity that sees in bodily suffering only a meaningless enemy. But this insight bears within it faith’s deepest and most radiant mystery: the Cross. It infuses ultimate meaning and hope into a universal human experience, revealing to us that, in the end, our crucified and risen God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him. Let us dare ask Jesus for the grace to desire to ask Him to see, and live, the world in this way. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Martyrs Witness

I will leave you with three quotes and then an embedded musical piece. The first quote was written by a deacon, now deceased, whom I had the privilege of coming to know in Iowa. As he was suffering the last stages of a painful terminal illness, he wrote these words to his children (which he later forwarded to me). The second quote is from Salvifici doloris and the third is from St. Paul. All three betray an insider’s view of this magnum mysterium, this “great mystery.” Below these is Mozart’s musical setting for the liturgical text, Ave Verum Corpus, which unveils in a few lines the exquisite beauty of the suffering that abides in God’s human love.

United with the cross of Christ, we are gifted with the blessing of sharing in His cross and participating in our own sanctification…

If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened His suffering to man, because He Himself in His redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all of human sufferings.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… Colossians 1:24

Mother of God

In the wake of yesterday’s great and solemn Feast of Mary’s divine maternity, I share this gorgeous liturgical text from the Eastern Church. It is actually a small part of a lengthy “Akathist” hymn to the Theotokos (Mother of God), and is named by the first words of the stanza, “Awed by the Beauty.” It takes us into the mind of the Archangel Gabriel as he is sent from God to Mary of Nazareth bearing a question from the Eternal. As he encounters her, he is set off balance by her overpowering beauty.

My wife and I love to sing it together in harmony.

The text is below, followed by a choir’s rendition of it on youtube.

Awed by the beauty of thy virginity
and the exceeding radiance of thy purity,
Gabriel stood amazed and cried to thee, O Mother of God:
“What praise can I offer thee that is worthy of thy beauty?
By what name shall I call thee?
I am lost and bewildered.
But I shall greet thee as I was commanded:
Hail! thou that art full of grace.

Imma

I had the blessing of being allowed to speak about Our Lady three years ago at St Francis of Assisi’s catechist in-service in West Des Moines, Iowa. In my preparations I came across a reflection I wrote in 1994 on my relationship to Mary. Imma is the Aramaic companion to Abba and means something like “Mama.”  I also include below the poem a beautiful song of Mary. At the risk of over-exposing you to my quasi-poetical stuff, here it goes…

O Imma

You, O Living Cup,
fashioned secret
of purest Eden clay,
drenched low in mercy’s rain,
sparkling with an eternally-Begotten Day.
Your soulful, joying flesh
doth magnify the Immense,
embracing Limitless Life,
rendering Infinity itty, too small to see,
echoing “Let there be light”
by your fearless “Let it be.”
You, O Dawn, birthed the Sun,
He who slays our blackened night,
and through your womb, All-Graced,
fills the earth with hope’s delight –
for seeing your heart so ready
God stooped low and smiled,
wrapped Himself in earthenware
and donned the frame of a helpless child.
Pray for us, O Shrine,
or rather I should say
teach us now to pray,
for you alone
O Sweet Mary
knew him so near,
swept tenderly his needful tear;
so now whisper so softly in my ear
what I am to do or speak,
for you as no other,
to God, O Mother,
could dare ever say:
‘Son, my son, listen:
this is how you pray.’

Scribes of Sanctity

Warning: here I will rethink past thoughts, rehash points I’ve already made on old posts and allow my thoughts to sail about without an obvious place to land. But hopefully my thoughts will shed some light on an important question for those who find it interesting. It’s become, along with my work on St. John of the Cross, the new passion of my theological work.

I had a very fruitful conversation the other day with a theologian friend of mine about my recent musings on “the spirituality of the laity.” We were talking about a really interesting book I happened on this Fall, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher, that spurred me on to new thoughts regarding lay holiness. Our conversation centered around the question, “From whence will come the spiritual literature that captures the uniquely secular character of the journey to lay holiness that the Second Vatican Council proposed?”

The Church in the World

We were talking specifically about the need for a spiritual literature for people who don’t work for church-affiliated institutions (like me), who don’t intentionally separate themselves from broader secular culture into church-affiliated, but rather who live in the midst of the mixed-bag world of work and community and culture as fully engaged faithful citizens. These people find their Catholic connection in local parishes and its various sub-communities, and have to discover their unique path to holiness sunk deep within religiously diverse, un-religious or irreligious contexts. They’re fully immersed in the secular, temporal realities of marriage and family life, are invested in their local cultures and communities, are hard at work in their diverse secular careers, finding themselves very much at home in the secular world even as they willingly suffer the dissonance that comes with being salt, light and leaven in the world. In the world is where they are called by God to be, and as they experience a profound deepening of their faith they must have ready at hand a spirituality and a faith community that inspires and supports their vocation to remain where they are, planted deep in the messy and complex secular world, in the midst of temporalities, there to grow to the heights of holiness.

They must not, we argued, have offered to them a lay spirituality that tempts them think they must to quit, loathe or be indifferent to the spiritual value of their secular jobs, withdraw from all non-Catholic community involvement, get involved only in church activities, and so on. Though some of the laity are certainly called by God to do such things, most are not, and to make “flight from the world” or “church mouse” approaches to the spiritual life look more attractive, more holy or more ideal is to give laity who are called to secularity the clear impression that a life of faith lived robustly deep in the midst of the world is necessarily a lesser, compromised path to holiness than the clericalized/monasticized/ecclesiasticalized path. These laity who are called by God to saintly secularity, who are the majority of Catholics, should, rather, be described as Pope Pius XII described them: the Church on the front lines. They are the ones who “take it on the chin” for Christ as He labors in, with and through them to consecrate the world to the Father. They are the Church that Pope Francis desires to see alive and well:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).

It’s spiritual vision proposed in a number of lay-oriented Catholic movements that have long inspired the secular lay apostolate, e.g. Saint Josemaría Escrivá’s Opus Dei, Chiara Lubich’s Focolare Movement, Legatus, the Knights of Columbus.

Who Will Write for Us?

My friend and I, after wading through these thickets of thought, sketched a proposal for creating fresh iterations of such a “secular saint” spiritual literature. We agreed that since very few of these “fully immersed in the world” saints will actually write a “way of perfection” autobiography or develop a unique spiritual doctrine that emerges from within their lived experience, they need informed biographers and scribes who are sufficiently fascinated with lay holiness, and who are able to theologically reflect on its unique genius, to set out its particular patterns of perfection, its distinct modes of prayer, vocational discernment and Christian virtue. We need what Roger Scruton called “voyeurs of holiness” who can share what they have seen and heard of these saints who are mostly hidden away in the world, and offer literature that empowers/inspires others who have been called along the same path.

I must say that as I thought later of the many types of theologically-minded biographers and scribes who could describe and analyze their holy sightings, I thought first of parish priests who are offered the privileged opportunity to catch an intimate, up-close-and-personal glimpse of God’s people at work consecrating the world. But it’s only those shepherd priests who love their sheep enough to share their smell, and who love the lay vocation as much as they love their own priestly vocation, who can offer to the Church a vivid view of how Christ’s faithful men and women in every walk of life, fully immersed in the world’s joys and sorrows, can and do become holy, scaling the heights of holiness. Men like a priest I know who never tires of sharing with me the stories of remarkable everyday people in and around his parish who “wow” him with their ability to find and bring Christ into the nooks and crannies of their corner of the world. When he sees them at Mass, he says, it fills him with joy to know that all of those unsung lives are brought to him that he might then bring to Christ who in turns sings of them before the Face of the Father. I’ve told this priest he must write of what he’s seen!

Four Lived Witnesses

Let me conclude with four offbeat, real-life examples that at least touch on this points I’ve tried to make here. Then I will leave you at the end with a Steven Curtis Chapman song.

First, I heard a homily this past Fall by a retired missionary priest who was reflecting on the life of prayer. He quoted the Catechism #2672, “there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray” and made an interesting point. He said,

Although it’s true that there are basic elements of prayer that all Catholics share, we should not think that there’s only one good way to pray. While contemplative nuns are asked to pray for hours and hours every day, busy moms have to work hard just to find time when they can and where they can — maybe in the bathroom or locked in a closet for 10 minutes! And while nuns might pray about deep spiritual thoughts, moms will probably pray mostly about their children or husband or someone else who falls under their watchful eye. Dads might offer to God throughout the day their problems at work. I had an Aunt who was the holiest person I ever knew, and she became holy by constantly praying novenas for other people. The key is that you pray, that you let God in on your world and that prayer seeps into the shape and rhythm of your day to day life.

Second, there was a gentleman I knew in Florida whom most would label an “angry old man.” And he was. But when you got to know him well, you saw something different. He worked in a machine shop, was a man of deep faith, active in the Knights of Columbus, and he was keenly aware of his own shortcomings and his problems with anger. And if you knew his life story, you’d totally get the roots of that anger. He confided to me one time after I had given a lecture back in 1998 on St. Teresa’s Interior Castles,

That’s inspiring stuff, but way beyond me. Tom, for me to hold my tongue even once from a sarcastic bite is probably equal to the fortitude needed by a saintly priest facing martyrdom. Life’s made a storm in me, and only God’s mercy, my saintly wife and my brother Knights make me able to live with myself. I always say to men who struggle with their weaknesses, “All God asks is that you take the next best step.” And since that’s all I’ve got to offer God, I can only hope he’s pleased.

Third is a story I’ve already posted on — about a mother of three older children who shared with me her amazing witness from her days as a young mother (as ever, in Neal-paraphrase):

When my children were young I used to long for the days before I had children, when I was heavily involved in charismatic renewal, with lots of time for me-prayer, supportive community and feel-like-a-hero service outreach activities; these gave me energy, life and a sense of purpose. After my second child was born, I felt deep down — though I would never have admitted it — that having children was somehow leading me away from God, as they seemed to present a distraction from what I spiritually enjoyed and thrived on. I also knew intellectually that this couldn’t be. But there I was! I fought it constantly by trying to edge in as many church-related activities as I could, sometimes overburdening my husband with my absences or overspending $ on babysitters.

Then one night when I was awakened by a hungry baby, I sat in my rocking chair nursing and I cried. I prayed, “How do I find you like I used to, God? I need more than this.” Then I suddenly heard God whisper deep into the depths of my broken heart, “Thank you for feeding me.”

It was like a spiritual explosion in my heart, a revolution, a whole upturning of my distorted worldview. God was there, appearing in the dark of night, in my house, in my nursing child, in my domestic vocation, in the present moment. And my longing for intimacy with Jesus suddenly seemed wrapped in dirty diapers and dishes and rare dates out with my husband. After that night, I saw that church life and my me-prayer — still very important to me! — were to be servants of my life outside of church. That my home was my first church. Now I always say, and my charismatic friends laugh, that saying prayers before meals or bedtime with my children has become my new mysticism, and shopping for groceries at Walmart, my new mission trip.

The final example includes some deep questions and struggles that undoubtedly arise for “ordinary” lay faithful who really do wish to take a next-best-step. This woman’s questions beg for a literature that speaks to her unique place in God’s manifold economy of grace. She wrote an email to an Orthodox priest in which she lays out with great honesty and power some complex conundrums that many who want to be faithful will, no doubt, identify with. And her email begs not only for a suitable spiritual literature that informs the lay vocation, but also asks for a new hagiography that equals in volume and passion the vast and rich hagiography of clerical, religious and third order lay saints that constitute most of our spiritual tradition. The next thousand years will, please God, give rise to that literature!

Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths, and, yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they’re also holy from their childhoods. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they have been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice and never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged.

If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain, while others go sailing up. Even in his human life, Jesus had his favorites: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, James, and John, who were the only ones of the apostles allowed to witness the Transfiguration, while the rest of the apostles were left out with the rest of the schmucks.

Our churches are full of ordinary people who chatter in the communion line and quibble over petty parish issues as if their lives depend on them. Why aren’t they being showered with the kind of grace that made St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Sergius of Radonezh? Serial killers have no conscience. In most cases because their parents abused it out of them. What chance did they have?

St. Lucy was protected in the brothel, but unaccounted little girls are trained by their own fathers to be sexual accessories. A life of virginity was never a choice that they could make, as their chastity is torn from them by the very one whose job it is to protect it. I grew up in an alcoholic family. I never learned how to trust the people I can see and do talk to me, much less a God I can’t see and doesn’t talk to me. I’m not asking why evil things happen. Evil things happen because there are evil people doing them. What I’m asking is: why does God make people who don’t have a snowball’s chance on a hot plate of having a kind of relationship with God that the Church teaches we’re all supposed to have?

We’re all supposed to be saints, but there aren’t any examples for ordinary people who don’t have the option of abandoning their spouses and children and running off to a monastery or into the desert. We’re lucky if God answers a prayer for something ordinary, like “Help one of our young adult children find a job,” much less something extraordinary like a prayer for physical, mental, or emotional healing for a friend or a family member. We stumble along doing our best, and then we’re told, it’s dangerous to want a closer relationship with God. The devil can use that to lead us into delusion. For Pete’s sake, can we win for losing?

Where’s the totally ordinary lay woman, married to a lay man, who gets to have anything like a relationship with God? I keep trying, but I haven’t even had a moment of sweetness, just ordinary sweetness, in prayer, for 15 years. Heaven is silent, and I certainly don’t have anything I could even call a relationship with God. And people like me are the majority, stumbling along in the rocks at the foot of the mountain, no hope of ever ascending. Is God too busy with the few he really likes to bother with the rest of us? I know you’re a very busy man, but I’d really appreciate it if you would answer this, if it even can be answered. Thank you, if you have read this so far.

So much more to say here, but I must stop as I have run out of time and I’ve way over-passed my usual word limit. But when has word limit ever limited me?

Do Everything

Now, listen here (you must be on my blog to view!):

Lay saint Gianna Beretta Molla (October 4, 1922 – April 28, 1962), an Italian pediatrician, wife and mother, with her husband, Pietro Molla. See article on her husband here: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/st-gianna-s-husband-dead-at-97

St. Innocent, pray for us

My very favorite historical theologian, Aidan Nichols, O.P., offered in his fascinating and little noticed book, Christendom Awake, a new ‘liturgical’ approach to the intractable debates over abortion.  An approach that draws its inspiration from today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents.

He suggested that the Church, in a single and dramatic act, canonize as “martyrs of innocence” the countless millions of brutally and unjustly aborted children.

He examines the many debates that have surrounded this proposal, especially the challenge of finding real precedent in the Catholic Tradition for canonizing the pre-born, or those whose death is not explicitly endured out of odium fidei, “hatred for the faith.”

One important effect of such an act would be, he argues, that Catholic Christians who formally cooperate in direct abortions would suddenly find themselves ranked not with the “noble army of martyrs,” but rather with that ignoble perpetrators of martyrdom.

In any event, we turn today to these powerless Innocents who suffered as scapegoats for the Lamb of God, and seek their powerful intercession.

Today’s Mass Collect: O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking but by dying, grant, we pray, that the faith in your which we confess with our lips may also speak through our manner of life. Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.’ (Matt. 2:17-18)

St. John

Inserting St. John the Beloved Disciple’s feast day into the midst of the Christmas Octave makes a powerful statement: if you wish to really get at what’s going on in these days of Christmas, to see into the hidden mystery of who Jesus is, take up St. John’s Gospel and read in faith with trembling hands.

The Gospel begins not with the nativity of Christ “according to the flesh” — as the Apostles creed in Latin words it, natus ex Maria Virgine, “born of the Virgin Mary.” It does not commence with the tense and heart warming story of Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, Magi and animals gathered in a Bethlehem cave. Rather, St. John begins by unveiling before our eyes, amid thick clouds of worshipful incense, the nativity of Christ “before all ages” — as the Nicene creed in Latin words it, ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula, “born of the Father before all ages.” Before Bethlehem, there was, in the eternity of God, an ineffable nativity playing out — again, in the Nicene Latin creed, Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum non factum, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”

It’s hard to even breathe when you let yourself “fall” into what stands behind those words.

Every time I read his Prologue, I am never without a fresh sense of awe as I am thrust back to the dawn of creation. Referring to the pre-incarnate Word, St. John says in 1:3, πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν, “All things through him came into being, and without him came into being not one thing.”

This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. In the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel we are thrust back into the innermost mysteries of the all-holy Trinity, whose deepest secrets are laid bare in the naked, newborn flesh of Christ.

Venite admoremus!

Love Letters

Lastly, the Church in her liturgy begins on this Feast to walk us through the three letters of St. John. These letters possess neutron-star density, unpacking for the Church the implications of the Incarnation of a God who is not just loving, but who is love. I so enjoy just looking at the beauty of those Greek words of 1 John 4:7 in which St. John sums up the entirety of the Sacred Scriptures in a single phrase: ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, “God is love.”

+++++++

I’ll leave you with this Arabic hymn that for me catches the esprit of John’s contemplative sighting:

Secular Saints with Worldly Holiness

N.B.: This post will last for 2 days as it is so long and unwieldy that I would not dare stuff more words into your Inbox a day later. And because of time constraints it’s also unedited, so I cannot vouch for proper spelling or grammatical tidiness. I hope is offers you some worthy food for thought. 

Having just taught a class on the “spirituality of the laity for the parish priest” this past semester, I have been thinking lots about what exactly to do with all of the theological insights my class helped me to conjure up. It’s like being a kid in a candy store.

I have been working on an article, but as my present pace of life only allows my ideas to emerge in blog-sized bits and fragments, I thought it best on occasion to share them with you as they fall out of my consciousness. I know I’ve written many a time in Obstat on this theme, so for those who’ve read consistently expect not the totally new, just the fresh.

Uncorked

A funny aside. I was speaking with a parishioner in my parish about 10 days ago, and he asked me what I had taught this semester. As with someone tasked with uncorking a champagne bottle that unbeknownst to them has been vigorously shaken, that man was not prepared for what was to come. Beginning with the phrase, “It was the most electrifying class I’ve ever taught,” I attempted to explain it to him with what he likely took as fanatical enthusiasm. In the midst of my vigorous reply, he suddenly interjected, saying, “Sounds like you really find that really interesting. What are you all doing for Christmas?”

I probably should work harder on a marketing strategy for my theological passions.

Maybe that’s what I prize most about this WordPress Blog — As I type furiously, it remains is so serenely attentive and receptive to my every crazed and wily thought.

Canonizable Worldiness

The Offertory
Presentation of the Gifts

Like an antiphonal response, I repeatedly shared with the Laity class my contention that the “core” revolution of the Second Vatican Council’s vision for the lay vocation was rooted in its unconditional affirmation that the laity, qua laity, are called to the fullness of perfection in holiness. The radicality of the way of perfection is not a uniquely monastic or clerical privilege. Neither is lay holiness understood as a “downgraded,” lower order participation in, or imitation of, monastic or clerical spirituality. The path to perfection for the laity has a particular genius that is singularly and uniquely its own. It does not stand in a superior/inferior relationship with Consecrated or clerical life, but rather exists in organic harmony with those states of life within the Church’s one vocation, which is to make present the coming Kingdom of God in this world through the revolutionary conspiracy of sanctity.

The vocation to be lay saints, the Council affirms, is effected principally within the laity’s “natural habitat”: the temporal realities of the secular world. Let me allow Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium #31 to speak for itself:

But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

The uniquely secular character of the lay vocation and mission gives rise to a uniquely secular spirituality; a spirituality whose heart and soul is tightly bound to the world. This is, in my mind, the undetonated theological bomb of the Council: What does a secular spirituality look like, and when will we see a new spiritual literature written that not only articulates such a spirituality, but one that is written by lay saints who strove to live by its earthy exigencies? As we have the treasure of an unimaginably vast spiritual literature written by sainted Consecrated religious and clerics, this new millennium will — please God! — give rise to a new body of literature written by secular mystics who speak of the dizzying heights of holiness achieved in board rooms, court rooms, house chambers, classrooms, showrooms, movie sets, construction sites, kitchens, ball fields and bedrooms. Of course, this literature has some history, is growing, but the best is yet to come.

The laity strive for transforming union with Christ not principally by doing explicitly religious/churchy things, but rather by doing mundane, secular, worldly things — full-scale engagement in civic, cultural, economic, political, marital, familial, military, athletic, etc. kinds of stuff. Lay saint-aspirants are unabashedly immersed in the secular world, are dual-citizens (i.e. heaven-earth) oriented mostly toward the earth. One might say that whereas monks and nuns follow the ascending Christ into the glorious heavens, laity follow the descending Christ into the world in order that, by finding their spiritual home engaging in its earth-bound occupations, the world itself might be consecrated to God. Secularity is the via to the heights of holiness for the laity, and the substance of what they will be judged on before the Throne of Christ on the Last Day. Gaudium et Spes 43 says it powerfully,

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. . . . The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.

Forming Faithful Citizens

I was talking about my class recently with a priest who worked for years in college campus ministry. He said some intriguing things relevant to this topic that I will paraphrase here:

My concern, honestly, is that we’re facing a generation of young people that are withdrawing more and more from an engaged participation in public and civic life. They seem either cynical or uninterested in public institutions and the virtues of citizenship that call you out of your personal interests into the common interest; from private to common good. Even if you say that their enthusiasm to get involved in social media makes them more engaged with the global community than ever, the fact is that they seem to be less engaged with the real world of messy and unexciting local community activities than ever. And it’s precisely in local community where politics, culture and community solidarity need to primarily reside if we are to build real time, real world neighborhoods and virtuous communities. They seem to be thinking less and less as co-responsible public citizens and more as private consumers who think of community or careers more in terms of personal self-fulfillment rather than as a service to the broader common good. They think of involvement as largely a matter of private, voluntary associations, self-chosen relationships that are able to be un-friended, un-chosen at will.

…You’re talking about a lay path to holiness that is fundamentally about being all-out engaged in cultivating civic virtues, building a virtuous culture and civilization by being fully engaged in the world of politics, business, medicine, education, art, and the like. But I’ll be honest, looking at the approach to Catholic life I cultivated in the years I was involved in campus ministry was really not that way. I think what I probably focused on was meeting their personal spiritual needs; helping them principally to discern whether or not God was calling them to serve in the church; encouraging their involvement in parish ministries far more than encouraging involvement outside of church; working mightily on their personal relationship with God. Of course that’s all important, but I really didn’t place importance on helping them to think of secular careers or involvement in non-ecclesial public life as a spiritual thing. Maybe they left thinking that it was spiritual to work in social outreach through soup kitchens or build homes for poor people, but I don’t think I emphasized enough for clearly them the way to do holiness through what 99.9% of them will end up called to do — to love and serve God and neighbor by being good citizens.

When many of them years later call me to share how hard it’s been for them to live in the secular world after thriving in the ecclesial bubble of our campus ministry, to see how sustain fervor in their prayer and faith life, or how to see that radical faith in Jesus has anything to do with the challenges of career work, worldly co-workers and friends, or the frenetic pace of family life, I wonder how I might have better prepared them to love Jesus as faithful citizens of this world. How I could have helped them see their role as joyful martyrs who love Jesus outside the protective walls of Jerusalem.

Broken yet good; fallen yet lifted up

The Council’s vision of the secular lay calling is rooted in a primal intuitions of faith. This world, even though it is fallen and broken, remains essentially good, was redeemed by Christ and is destined for the glory of the New Creation. In other words, all that is good and redeemable in this world will not be left behind in heaven. It will be “taken up” and transfigured, just as the dead body of Jesus was not left behind, but raised up in the glory of the resurrection.

That’s really amazing.

That said, if we say this world is destined for a glorious “transfiguration” in the next world, how does it “get there”? What’s the primary “vehicle of transition,” the means by which this world passes over from its present corrupted state to its future glorious form in the Age to Come?

The answer is, the laity who have been joined to Christ and made made royal priests in Baptism, sealed by the Spirit in Confirmation. Their vocation is to gather from this world, by means of their virtuous and sacrificial secular labors, the material of which the Kingdom to God is built. Just like the priest celebrating Mass, the laity have their own epiclesis by which they call down the Spirit to consecrate the world. Elijah-like, they call down, within their secular vocations, the divine Fire from heaven to consume the materials they have tirelessly gathered for sacrifice. Then every Sunday they bear up on their shoulders this igneous, Spirit-drenched treasury of sacrificial materials and, in the Offertory of the Mass, lift it on high, through the hands of the priest, into the all-consuming Eucharistic Fire. Therein, Christ makes our treasures his own in the imperishable glory of his eternal Father, where nothing worthy is ever lost or passes away, and makes them infinitely fruitful for the good of all.

In the words of Gaudium et Spes #39:

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.

Or again, in the words of Bl. Pope John Paul II (which my wonderful students printed on a t-shirt!),

For their work, prayers and apostolic endeavours, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labour, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God.

We need…

We need earthy lay mystics who infuse the terrestrial with the celestial; who find their unspeakable intimacy with God mired in the unsung tedium of their worldly work, their nuptial love, their cubicles, their son’s ball game, their friend’s music recital, their rock climbing, their child’s needful cry. Who pray deepest while blessing their sleepy children, interceding for their sick parents, asking for the strength to sustain their two family-supporting jobs. Who cling to God in a father-daughter dance, in date night with their spouse, in their nonchalant generosity to a needy neighbor, in their grappling with loneliness in the evening of life, in their shouting enjoyment of football, in the daily grind of suffering or the moments of life-celebrating joy. Done well, this earth-bound mystic brew yields a spiced wine worthy of Christ’s everlasting Feast that celebrates the wedding of heaven and earth.

Okay. Time to stop.

A final thought

To conclude thus interminable ramble, let me share with you a poem I first penned the morning after the Laity class final exam, but re-wrote today as I looked out at the sun rising in the east. It thinks of the human vocation from the creation of the world to its consummation in the Age to Come. It’s dense and abstract, but for me it captures at least the taste of what I have found in the “spirituality of the laity” to be oh so sweet.

Song of the Lay Redeemed

God-breathed clay, twice-entwining in nuptial flesh

deeply Image-pressed, thrice sealed in uncreated Fire,

molded only yet to lift all here below always, ever-Higher

through the Father’s Song of Song, ever-Begotten fresh –

But lo, lament! this earthen Flame was felled far into mire.

Yet lo, again! Love unrelenting, relentlessly unthwarted,

crazed Bridegroom our murderous, adulterous love courted –

descending, plunging far too far down, so fleshly, deathly low

way into our raving mad folly, enduring our ferocious mortal blow.

Yet of sudden, see! a graying slain-God, bled dry of undying Blood

arises, freed alas to drench all – us! – from a gaping, wounded Side:

Spirit out-spilled from His seamed heavenly-earth, Love far-wide

drowning all loss of mortal death, welling up a springing sacred Flood.

But why?

Only that this Bridegroom’s soiled Bride might be washed, purely wed

embraced within His downward stoop, swept up into His God-ward wake,

loving her as feeding Food, as one Flesh for her to bless and dare to take

making her too a Food that feeds, who fills the hungry with His starving Bread;

who inebriates a joyless world by her self-forgetful love, stone-shattering God-quake

of sudden that forms all new: God-kneaded, Christ-infested, earth and heaven inter-cling

as Old falls up into New through our hands, leaping joy, wild with an unsung song to sing:

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

be it forever our hymn to creation’s majestic King

in the New World filled by Ole earth’s lovely reechoing.

Amen.

Jewish Wedding Dance

 

Dusty Love

For this feast of St. John of the Cross, I could not hold my silence.

One of my favorite quotes from the Ascent of Mt. Carmel,

Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved.

Then one of my favorite re-echoes of that quote in St. John’s spiritual daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux,

I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.

And finally a quote from my former spiritual director, now deceased, who lived St. John’s radical vision of spiritual poverty in his parish priesthood (which he lived faithfully for 44 years). Speaking of his rationale for rising every day at 4:30 a.m. to pray his Holy Hour before celebrating 6:00 a.m. Mass, he said to me in a very private moment, as he tried to encourage me to persevere through a very arid time in my prayer life,

Tom, for the past 20 years my prayer has been dry dust; but in the end it’s faithfulness and not feelings that count, it’s what you do for your Beloved…it’s emptied my prayer of me, and though I entered these last years kicking and screaming, now prayer’s less about my needs and more for Him and for the people he has entrusted to my care.

My favorite image of him was sneaking a pre-dawn peek at  him in his tiny rectory chapel, thumbing through the pages of the parish directory, his eyes dancing between the pages and Christ exposed in a tiny monstrance. Loving God and loving neighbor, and only thus truly loving himself.

Happy feast!