God’s human face

Johann Carl Loth, “The Good Samaritan.” Taken from https://lh3.googleusercontent.com

These weeks are very busy at the seminary where I work, so I cannot be certain of my ability to write daily. We’ll see. But as writing here is a singular joy in my life, I will try to preserve at least some time each day to write whatever presents itself. Today I am tight, so I will just allow my mind to stream some thoughts. Hang on.

Totus Christus

The other day, I was going through my notes from my 1991 moral theology class. I am so happy I saved those notes! Anyway, the professor was evidently speaking about the virtue of justice and connecting it to St. Paul’s phrase in Romans 13:8, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” He shared an excerpt from a homily he heard in which the preacher said,

We love Jesus. Yes, he’s easy to love. He’s perfect. We love to receive him into our bodies and souls in his Eucharistic Presence. We love Christ the Head of the Body. And so it should be! But we’re in reality double-minded as we don’t love the whole Christ. We don’t so much love to receive his Mystical Body, the Church, which is that ragtag, unpleasant, smelly collection of humanity he has joined to himself. We prefer the pristine, decapitated Christ; we desire to receive the Head only to spit out his members, the members of his Body.

As I re-read this quote in my notes I vividly recalled the feelings I had on hearing that story when my prof first told it. I remember being at once horrified by the grotesque image and enthralled by the power of a message I had never considered in that way before. I felt indicted. I was indicted. I am indicted.

I took that memory to Mass that morning and as I played it over in my mind I recalled a quote from St. Catherine of Siena, which is timely because today is her glorious feast. It’s a selection from her Dialogue with God the Father, who, commenting on the commandment to love God above all things, says,

I require that you should love Me with the same love with which I love you. This indeed you cannot do, because I loved you without being loved. All the love which you have for Me you owe to Me, so that it is not of grace that you love Me, but because you ought to do so. While I love you of grace, and not because I owe you My love.

Therefore to Me, in person, you cannot repay the love which I require of you, and I have placed you in the midst of your fellows, that you may do to them that which you cannot do to Me, that is to say, that you may love your neighbor of free grace, without expecting any return from him, and what you do to him, I count as done to Me. This love must be sincere, because it is with the same love with which you love Me, that you must love your neighbor.

I often speak in my posts of the twofold commandment — love of God and neighbor — that Jesus places in the center of the Gospel. To love God is to love one’s fellow human beings, and to love one’s fellow human beings is to love God. In fact, the whole of the Law and Prophets was given to reveal the fuller meaning of those two commandments. Indeed, the entirety of the economy of salvation conspires toward forming God-neighbor lovers, that is, it conspires toward birthing lovers of Jesus Christ. The Catechism ends its Prologue with this point:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. #25


That same moral theology professor once made a point in this regard that I found (and still find) quite striking:

If love is ordered as God intended it to be — which is the meaning of morality! — there is absolutely no competition between love of God and love of neighbor.  Sometimes we develop a piety that sees people as a distraction from God, or as a mere means to the real end in God. But if you have your priorities right, every human being around you presents a fresh opportunity not just to love that person for God, or to love God in that person, but to love that person with God. That’s what St Vincent intended in his marvelous expression, “When you leave your prayer to attend to the knock of the needy at your door, do not think you have shirked your sacred duty, for you go from God to God.” Or you can even read St Patrick’s Breastplate as a spirituality of the ubiquitous neighbor:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Thick Covenant Blood

As I think about this, it re-convinces me that this vision must especially be at the heart of any authentic spirituality of marriage and family life. Spouses and families are the neighbors “in your face” who are stuck to us by blood and covenant. My own very personal encounter with God, my journey toward union with Christ in his Church, can never be dissociated from my parents, my spouse, my children, my in-laws. God will not permit me to bypass them. Even if my relationships are broken and painful, and require me to limit my contact with some of these people, I remain bonded to them and I love God well only by continuing to love them in some manner. Love by pardon, by prayer, love by refusing to speak ill of them, by desiring their temporal and eternal welfare.

By loving the nearest of our nearby neighbors, those who present us with the greatest challenges precisely because they are so persistently near, we find a most profound and wonderful opportunity to grow into holiness, which is perfectio caritatis, “the perfection of charity.” As I’ve said before, God desires best of all to be loved in and through the neighbor, and he demonstrated that desire above all by becoming human and so unifying those loves for all eternity. To love Jesus is to be inescapably in love with God and humanity all at once.

Loving long

An additional thought comes to mind. My wife and my children are the epicenter of my quest to love God, and to be loved by God. They have shaped my relationship with God. The contours of my wife’s face or the squeeze of my child’s hand are, for me, the essential form grace takes in my life. I realize that who I am cannot be separated from who they are; that my love for them is constitutive of who I am. And I rejoice in that! The constraints and demands they place on my life don’t shackle my freedom but rather give it an impassioned purpose and direction worthy of freedom’s raison d’être: love.

I become myself truly only when I find another to freely give myself to and for; and allow that other to give themselves to and for me. In that exchange, which in our marriage is unabashedly sacramental, I am caught up into divine love. Think here especially of those relationships that, because they are long, deep, arduous, messy, forcing us to face the depths of human suffering and sin, call forth from us the latent greatness that God placed within us; a greatness that awaits the other to draw it forth from our depths.

I’ve always thought that one of the myriad reason’s for marriage’s till-death permanence is the opportunity such enduring stability affords us to become great and godlike lovers. To become like the long-suffering God of mercy.

Hopko finale

I will end with a Fr. Tom Hopko quote on loving neighbor. As you may know, I have a genuine affection for his brilliant, homey and challenging style.

…the second great commandment that goes with the Shema, from the Levitical code, is that we are to love our neighbor as being our very own self. In other words, we find ourselves in our neighbor. Sometimes people want to speak about loving ourselves, that we should have a healthy self-love. That’s true. We should not be down on ourselves or berate ourselves or beat ourselves up or fall in any kind of despair over ourselves. We are made by God, and we are loved by God.

However, self-love, philofteia in Greek, which St. Maximus, one of our great saints, said, IS the original sin. When you’re not loving God and neighbor, but you’re just loving yourself, that loving of ourselves is so destructive according to the Church Fathers because we don’t have any self in ourselves. We’re made in the image and likeness of God who is love, so the only way we can really love ourselves properly is by loving our neighbor. Even in Hebrew, that’s probably how it should be translated: “You shall love your neighbor because your neighbor is your very own self. You have no self in yourself.” You only find and fulfill yourself by denying your so-called self in love for the neighbor, and then your self is affirmed. It appears. It’s realized. Here, I think it’s important to note that the paraphrases of the New Testament that say, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself,” are not really an accurate rendering of the text.

In any case, it is a clear teaching of the Holy Scripture that the only way we can prove our love for God is by loving the person next to us, our neighbor. Of course, Jesus teaches that our neighbor is the worst enemy we can think of. In fact, if we wanted to evaluate how we’re doing as a human being, as a Christian, we would just ask ourselves, “How would I treat the person that I hate the most and that hates me the most? How do I treat the one that for me is the most ugly enemy I can think of?” When we see how we do it, then we’ll see if we love God or not, because it’s exactly that person that we have to love.

Habemus papās sanctōs!

In honor of the papal canonizations tomorrow, I thought I would include my two personal favorite texts relative to each new saint. The first is by Pope John XXIII himself, while the second is a homily on the life of John Paul II.

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Pope John XXIII
“Moonlight Speech”
(Pope John’s speech on the night of the opening of the Second Vatican Council)
Window of the Apostolic Palace
11 October 1962

Dear sons and daughters,

I feel your voices! Mine is just one lone voice, but it sums up the voice of the whole world.

And here, in fact, all the world is represented here tonight. It could even be said that even the moon hastens close tonight, that from above, it might watch this spectacle that not even St Peter’s Basilica, over its four centuries of history, has ever been able to witness.

We ask for a great day of peace. Yes, of peace! “Glory to God, and peace to men of goodwill.” If I asked you, if I could ask of each one of you: where are you from? The children of Rome, especially represented here, would respond: ah, we are the closest of children, and you’re our bishop. Well, then, sons and daughters of Rome, always remember that you represent Roma, caput mundi [“Rome, the capital of the world”] which through the design of Providence it has been called to be across the centuries.

My own person counts for nothing — it’s a brother who speaks to you, become a father by the will of our Lord, but all together, fatherhood and brotherhood and God’s grace, give honor to the impressions of this night, which are always our feelings, which now we express before heaven and earth: faith, hope, love, love of God, love of brother, all aided along the way in the Lord’s holy peace for the work of the good. And so, let us continue to love each other, to look out for each other along the way: to welcome whoever comes close to us, and set aside whatever difficulty it might bring.

When you head home, find your children. Hug and kiss your children and tell them: “This is the hug and kiss of the Pope.” And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them “The Pope is with us especially in our times of sadness and bitterness.” And then, all together, may we always come alive — whether to sing, to breathe, or to cry, but always full of trust in Christ, who helps us and hears us, let us continue along our path.

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Funeral Homily of the Roman Pontiff John Paul II
St Peter’s Square
Friday, 8 April 2005

“Follow me.” The Risen Lord says these words to Peter. They are his last words to this disciple, chosen to shepherd his flock. “Follow me” – this lapidary saying of Christ can be taken as the key to understanding the message which comes to us from the life of our late beloved Pope John Paul II. Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality – our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.

These are the sentiments that inspire us, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, present here in Saint Peter’s Square, in neighbouring streets and in various other locations within the city of Rome, where an immense crowd, silently praying, has gathered over the last few days. I greet all of you from my heart. In the name of the College of Cardinals, I also wish to express my respects to Heads of State, Heads of Government and the delegations from various countries. I greet the Authorities and official representatives of other Churches and Christian Communities, and likewise those of different religions. Next I greet the Archbishops, Bishops, priests, religious men and women and the faithful who have come here from every Continent; especially the young, whom John Paul II liked to call the future and the hope of the Church. My greeting is extended, moreover, to all those throughout the world who are united with us through radio and television in this solemn celebration of our beloved Holy Father’s funeral.

Follow me – as a young student Karol Wojtyła was thrilled by literature, the theatre, and poetry. Working in a chemical plant, surrounded and threatened by the Nazi terror, he heard the voice of the Lord: Follow me! In this extraordinary setting he began to read books of philosophy and theology, and then entered the clandestine seminary established by Cardinal Sapieha. After the war he was able to complete his studies in the faculty of theology of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków. How often, in his letters to priests and in his autobiographical books has he spoken to us about his priesthood, to which he was ordained on 1 November 1946. In these texts he interprets his priesthood with particular reference to three sayings of the Lord. First: “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). The second saying is: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). And then: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15:9). In these three sayings we see the heart and soul of our Holy Father. He really went everywhere, untiringly, in order to bear fruit, fruit that lasts. “Rise, Let us be on our Way!” is the title of his next-to-last book. “Rise, let us be on our way!” – with these words he roused us from a lethargic faith, from the sleep of the disciples of both yesterday and today. “Rise, let us be on our way!” he continues to say to us even today. The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months. And in this way he became one with Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep. Finally, “abide in my love:” the Pope who tried to meet everyone, who had an ability to forgive and to open his heart to all, tells us once again today, with these words of the Lord, that by abiding in the love of Christ we learn, at the school of Christ, the art of true love.

Follow me! In July 1958 the young priest Karol Wojtyła began a new stage in his journey with the Lord and in the footsteps of the Lord. Karol had gone to the Masuri lakes for his usual vacation, along with a group of young people who loved canoeing. But he brought with him a letter inviting him to call on the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszyński. He could guess the purpose of the meeting: he was to be appointed as the auxiliary Bishop of Kraków. Leaving the academic world, leaving this challenging engagement with young people, leaving the great intellectual endeavour of striving to understand and interpret the mystery of that creature which is man and of communicating to today’s world the Christian interpretation of our being – all this must have seemed to him like losing his very self, losing what had become the very human identity of this young priest. Follow me – Karol Wojtyła accepted the appointment, for he heard in the Church’s call the voice of Christ. And then he realized how true are the Lord’s words: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Lk 17:33). Our Pope – and we all know this – never wanted to make his own life secure, to keep it for himself; he wanted to give of himself unreservedly, to the very last moment, for Christ and thus also for us. And thus he came to experience how everything which he had given over into the Lord’s hands came back to him in a new way. His love of words, of poetry, of literature, became an essential part of his pastoral mission and gave new vitality, new urgency, new attractiveness to the preaching of the Gospel, even when it is a sign of contradiction.

Follow me! In October 1978 Cardinal Wojtyła once again heard the voice of the Lord. Once more there took place that dialogue with Peter reported in the Gospel of this Mass: “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep!” To the Lord’s question, “Karol, do you love me?,” the Archbishop of Krakow answered from the depths of his heart: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our beloved Holy Father. Anyone who ever saw him pray, who ever heard him preach, knows that. Thanks to his being profoundly rooted in Christ, he was able to bear a burden which transcends merely human abilities: that of being the shepherd of Christ’s flock, his universal Church. This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate. I would like only to read two passages of today’s liturgy which reflect central elements of his message. In the first reading, Saint Peter says – and with Saint Peter, the Pope himself – “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts10:34-36). And in the second reading, Saint Paul – and with Saint Paul, our late Pope – exhorts us, crying out: “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (Phil 4:1).

Follow me! Together with the command to feed his flock, Christ proclaimed to Peter that he would die a martyr’s death. With those words, which conclude and sum up the dialogue on love and on the mandate of the universal shepherd, the Lord recalls another dialogue, which took place during the Last Supper. There Jesus had said: “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied: “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow me afterward.” (Jn 13:33,36). Jesus from the Supper went towards the Cross, went towards his resurrection – he entered into the paschal mystery; and Peter could not yet follow him. Now – after the resurrection – comes the time, comes this “afterward.” By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the paschal mystery, he goes towards the cross and the resurrection. The Lord says this in these words: “… when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). In the first years of his pontificate, still young and full of energy, the Holy Father went to the very ends of the earth, guided by Christ. But afterwards, he increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly he understood the truth of the words: “Someone else will fasten a belt around you.” And in this very communion with the suffering Lord, tirelessly and with renewed intensity, he proclaimed the Gospel, the mystery of that love which goes to the end (cf. Jn 13:1).

He interpreted for us the paschal mystery as a mystery of divine mercy. In his last book, he wrote: The limit imposed upon evil “is ultimately Divine Mercy” (Memory and Identity, pp. 60-61). And reflecting on the assassination attempt, he said: “In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love … It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good” (pp. 189-190). Impelled by this vision, the Pope suffered and loved in communion with Christ, and that is why the message of his suffering and his silence proved so eloquent and so fruitful.

Divine Mercy: the Holy Father found the purest reflection of God’s mercy in the Mother of God. He, who at an early age had lost his own mother, loved his divine mother all the more. He heard the words of the crucified Lord as addressed personally to him: “Behold your Mother.” And so he did as the beloved disciple did: he took her into his own home” (eis ta idia: Jn 19:27) – Totus tuus. And from the mother he learned to conform himself to Christ.

None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Love of enemy and other odd thoughts

A few scattered, odd thoughts as we stand at the threshold of this most solemn Three Day event, the sacred Triduum.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

As I mentioned Sunday, these days are the true axis of time, days when the sanctuary veil that partitions time and eternity thins out, collapses, tears open.

All of their brutality and glory, their beauty and horror, their splendor and terror has been forever caught up into the eternity of God, shaping the very manner in which Son and Father interrelate through the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). That thought alone suffices to sustain awe and wonder for a lifetime.

These days beat at the heart of the Church’s Spirit-laden memory, are the wellspring of her divinized identity and soul of her Pentecostal mission. Every minute detail of these Three days inhabits the deathless liturgies of heaven that have now broken into our world. God’s glory gleams with crimson hues, colored with the Blood of the Lamb.

The Cross, the adorable Cross, stands at the center of this axis as the unshakable foundation of the New Creation.

We speak in Good Friday’s liturgy with seemingly idolatrous excess:

Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit.
Venite adoremus.
“Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world.”
“Come let us adore.”

These 2 stanzas from Venantius Fortunatus’ 6th century Latin poem, Vexilla Regis, express this adoring voice well,

Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari.

“O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.
Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
the wealth that did the world restore;
the beam that did that Body weigh
which raised up Hell’s expected prey.”

The Word became Wood

The Cross was so intimately joined to Christ’s humanity that its Wood, being saturated with his blood (see Aquinas’ Summa, III, q. 25, a. 4), claims that singular dignity of commanding latria, worship which is due to God alone. The whole of creation, visible and invisible, worships. From its splinters spring the life-giving waters, “sparkling like crystal,” that flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the New Jerusalem (cf Rev 22:1-2). It is the new Tree of Life, and from its heavy-laden boughs heavenly Manna descends, spiced Wine gushes forth.

It’s all an astonishing paradox: the grotesque, heinous atrocities accompanying the crucifixion of God by his own creatures become for us, by a supreme act of divine power, the primal signs of beauty that brilliantly illumine the new heavens and new earth with the splendors of sacrificial love.

How is this that God works? He heals by refashioning the poison, brings peace by remaking the sword, reveals wisdom by reconstituting folly, transforms power by foot washing, tramples down death by death and reveals life by transfiguring the tomb into a womb. His saving economy is a liturgy of inversions, making of man’s tragedy a divine comedy.

As Fr. Aidan Nichols aptly sums up this bewildering economy,

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. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.

A naked and dying God revealing pure worship. The Mass flowing from the Word, “bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” The amazement stirs in me these words:

Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath fire our life-giving bread;
but on the Altar under a Wingèd Shadow
is of sudden re-made to its lowest ground:
creation is lost! Yet in truth has been found
by the Creator-Word of a God Most High
who stooped low into our starving misery,
stripped by human violence to naked Mystery;
Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath Fire our life-giving Bread;
O Bread soaked in God’s vintage Blood — Adored!
Lavishly, infinity, wastefully, lovingly outpoured
— O press your face to dusty earth! –
onto torn Flesh,
splintered Wood,
hammered Iron:
o’er-spilling Chalice
of unfettered mercy
set free by unfettered malice:
O Saving Mystery!

In Christ God reveals a strange, wonderfully strange world where Lambs conquer Dragons, the least are greatest, the most precious is the most despised, and where the supreme heights of godlike perfection are to be found in loving of enemies, in speaking well of detractors and in praying most fervently for those who wish us the greatest ill. It’s a world so other, so new, so radically fresh and different that it requires us to undergo rebirth, requires being born again of God, to see its grandeur and majesty. It requires death and resurrection. But more, to live its startling demands, it requires a new heart and a new spirit that render us susceptible to the Holy Spirit of this Unknown God, the Spirit who alone can make us co-artisans with Christ in fashioning this in-breaking Kingdom of God.

In a word, only the Spirit of the Crucified can make us saints carved from the Wood of his Cross.


Let me leave you with the words of the golden mouthed saint, John Chrysostom, who ever so eloquently unveils the stark newness of this New Creation:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them, especially when we recall that the [disciples] were only twelve and the whole world was full of wolves…We ought then to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep we have the victory; but if we are like wolves we are beaten, for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves…This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace. Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.

Hans von Tübingen, Crucifixion (1430) Taken from http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

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 http://www.byzantinemuseum.gr


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.