Cultural Mystics

This still shot (taken from the Russian movie, Andrey Rublyov) of Saint Andrei Rublev for me captures the gritty sanctity that made this Orthodox iconographer a saint. His vocation to shoulder the terrible burden of bringing the Beauty of the Kingdom into the grey ruins of a violent, loveless, fallen world was a true co-crucifixion with Christ that made him a saint. See the movie some time and you’ll understand. Taken from

Anyone who reads this Blog knows that I am passionately committed to proclaiming and unfolding the hidden treasures found in what I would consider the greatest gift of the Second Vatican Council to the Church: the recognition and valorization of the lay call to the fullness of holiness in its secular dimension. In other words, the lay calling is to realize the pinnacles of sanctity while living fully immersed in the heights and hovels of secular society. This Conciliar articulation of the laity’s unique path to perfection holds within it an immense and largely unrealized potential for opening all manners and fresh expressions of “worldly” holiness. The Council’s vision was that there is that the laity, by virtue of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist and (for those called) Marriage, are given by God a specific vocation and mission whose genius demands a distinctive spirituality different from those in the Church called to dedicate their lives principally to the “goods of religion.” As Lumen Gentium #31 worded it:

Laicis indoles saecularis propria et peculiaris est, “What is proper and peculiar to the laity is their secular genius.”

And that demands a proper and peculiar asceticism and mysticism.

I won’t completely rehash right now what I have already said on this topic, but I will today renew my contention that the only real antidote to an increasingly rabid atheistic secularism is an increasingly radical theistic secularism; that the only real cure for the growing worship of the world as a god by idolaters is the consecration of the world to God by Christ’s faithful; that the only real remedy for modernity’s divorce of faith and life is to be found only in lives lived “on earth as in heaven”; that the only healing for a culture built on the divinizing self-exaltation of man is a culture built on the humanizing Incarnation of a self-emptying God; and so on.

From such a robust vision of a world-consecrating laity flows a spirituality that refuses to merely condemn, hide from or flee the world but, like Christ crucified outside the sacred walls of Jerusalem, intentionally places itself in the midst of the world’s secular affairs all-the-while working “for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (LG #31). Again, Lumen Gentium #38 says that the laity “must be to the world what the soul is to the body,” which means that the laity must have a spirituality that is able to inspire lives dedicated principally to bringing the divine will to bear on the goods of this world. And, as Dcn. Dr. Jim Keating contends, that means a spirituality that flows from Catholic social doctrine.

Khristian Kulturkampf

The laity’s world-leavening spirituality, so rich and varied according to each of the faithful’s place in the world, finds its home, in a unique and particular way, in the midst of human culture. In other words, the ordinary (meaning normative) path to holiness for the laity, which constitutes the specific mode of their intimate union with Christ, is to be found in the cultivation of a culture that extends the Incarnation into every nook and cranny of social, economic, political, legal, educational, agricultural, business, etc., as well as into marriage and family life for those so called by God.

When God became human in Christ, He did not just assume to Himself a human body and soul, but the whole cultural matrix that constituted the fullness of His human life as a Jew living under Roman occupation. And at Pentecost, Christ offered to draw the whole culture of mankind into His Body to be transfigured and redeemed unto eternal life. I would argue further that the Eucharist itself proclaims this truth in a singularly striking way as the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy transforms nothing other than two artifacts of human culture, bread and wine, into the Body and Blood of the God-Man. Understood in this way, engaging human culture can never be seen as a “mystically” neutral act, but doing culture itself becomes an essential and, you might say, sacramental medium of entering into transforming communion with the Risen Christ. In other words, the laity are the purveyors and embodiers of a “cultural mysticism,” which permits no aspect of “worldly/secular” life to escape the ambit of God’s sanctifying Spirit.


Among the nearly infinite variety of world-leavening acts of culture-making the laity are called to engage in, the Church has always placed a special emphasis on art — musical, visual, literary, theatrical, etc. In fact, St. John Paul II, himself an artist, wrote a beautiful letter to artists in 1999. In that letter he said,

My hope for all of you who are artists is that you will have an especially intense experience of creative inspiration. May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.

People of today and tomorrow need [your] enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world”.

Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.(26)

Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.

May you be guided and inspired by the mystery of the Risen Christ, whom the Church in these days contemplates with joy.

May the Blessed Virgin Mary be with you always: she is the “tota pulchra” portrayed by countless artists, whom Dante contemplates among the splendors of Paradise as “beauty that was joy in the eyes of all the other saints”.

“From chaos there rises the world of the spirit”. These words of Adam Mickiewicz, written at a time of great hardship for his Polish homeland, prompt my hope for you: may your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.

What an extraordinarily precise phrasing of what is, for me, the soul of the lay saint: one called and sent by the Spirit into the world to “transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.” The laity are called to be iconographers of culture, co-creating with Christ the Artisan a civilization made susceptible to what the Preface to the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe calls

a Kingdom of truth and life,
a Kingdom of holiness and grace,
a Kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

JP2 Artists

Let me leave you with a cool video that has various young artists reading a section of the Pope’s Letter to Artists. May his intercession raise up a new generation of cultural mystics who are not afraid to be secular and will reveal in the midst of the world the Kingdom of God. Those who are set on fire by the Gospel should not turn within and burn only in church, but should rather Ite, missa est, “Go, be sent” into the world to set it on fire. Do not be afraid!

See here:

O Fortunate Ruin

{This is an old post from summer of 2012}

The other day I was speaking on the phone with someone who has worked for a few decades in a Catholic institution, and in the course of the conversation they related some painful job-related difficulties. In the course of the conversation this person said in exasperation, “Sometimes I wonder if Jesus has anything to do with the work we do.”

It set me wondering.

Solus Christus

Having worked within the Church Institutional for the last ~24 years, I have noted that original sin is alive and well in its unoriginal hosts.

The bumps, bruises and blows I have endured, and have doled out, over the years have served to reinforce in me a bedrock truth upon which I have tried to build my own work and protect my inner joy: the Church is, in the final analysis, Christ’s and not mine or ours. Further, the Church rests on an unstable paradox: the Church’s one foundation is the terrifyingly unjust execution of the divine Creator and the Creator’s terrifyingly merciful re-creation of his human executors. She’s built on human sin and divine grace, human violence and divine peace, human rage and divine compassion. Human infidelity is built into the Church’s very founding event, making sin into a strange fountain in our midst that upwells with superabundant grace (cf Rom. 5:20).

Take this into prayer and allow the Spirit to weave it into your soul and watch the transformation happen — the way you will see powerful divinity appear in weak humanity.


Back in 1989, I met an elderly priest (probably in his 90′s) at a Lourdes Grotto in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He randomly grabbed my arm and said to me, “Son, the secret to a lifetime of priesthood is found in Jeremiah 17:5 and Psalm 146:3. Look them up.” I went and looked them up as spoon as I was able.

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings,
who makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord. — Jeremiah 17:5

Put no trust in princes,
In mortal men in whom there is no help. — Psalm 146:3

After I read them I thought, “Cynical.” I was sad to think at his age that that was where he was ending.

But now, I get it.

From the vantage of faith, success in life isn’t determined by the absence of hardships or difficult people, but on how tightly one has cleaved to Christ in all things. Only in that way can the ups and downs of life open up into so many singularly graced opportunities to sink my anchor deep into the only Rock.

I love you, Lord, my strength,
my rock, my fortress, my savior.
My God is the rock where I take refuge;
my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold. — Psalm 18:1-2

Long learned wisdom

If I had to name those men and women of faith that I most admire, all of them, as I call them to mind right now, are people who have suffered hardships and disappointments within the Church, but have refused to succumb to bitterness, cynicism or flights from reality. An old priest I know and greatly admire not long ago said to me (and consented that I share these words), referring to his lifelong ecclesiastical tribulations,

I’ve been through hell, but it’s taught me heaven. In the blackness of my worst pain, I have caught a glimpse of St. John of the Cross’ stanza:

O night that led me true,
O night more fair than morning’s earliest shining,
O night that wrought from two
lover, beloved entwining
beloved and lover one in their combining!

Had I not gone there, I would never have come here. Jesus. Jesus. It’s all Jesus.

You see, for me it’s people who have been “through it” that have something to say, and who can, like Jesus, “speak with authority.” And though I myself cannot yet speak with such authority, I can share with you the hard-won wisdom of those who do.

Italian-American theology

Let me leave you with the well-known words of the late Italian theologian, Carlo Carretto, who here starkly expresses this paradoxical vantage, and the words of Frank Sheed, brilliant American lay Catholic theologian/author of the mid 20th century, who captures the same tension.


The Church has the power to make me holy but it is made up, from the first to the last, only of sinners. And what sinners! It has the omnipotent and invincible power to renew the Miracle of the Eucharist, but is made up of men who are stumbling in the dark, who fight every day against the temptation of losing their faith. It brings a message of pure transparency to God but it is incarnated in slime, such is the substance of the world. It speaks of the sweetness of its Master, of its non-violence, but there was a time in history when it sent out its armies to disembowel the infidels and torture the heretics. It proclaims the message of evangelical poverty, and yet it does nothing but look for money and alliances with the powerful.

Those who dream of something different from this are wasting their time and have to rethink it all. And this proves that they do not understand humanity. Because this is humanity, made visible by the Church, with all its flaws and its invincible courage, with the Faith that Christ has given it and with the love that Christ showers on it.

When I was young, I did not understand why Jesus chose Peter as his successor, the first Pope, even though he abandoned Him. Now I am no longer surprised and I understand that by founding his church on the tomb of a traitor, He was warning each of us to remain humble, by making us aware of our fragility

How much I must criticize you, my church,
and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything
more compromised, more false,
yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times
I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face
– and yet, every night,
I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you,
even if not completely.
Then too–where would I go? To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects,
for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church,
it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough, I know better.


We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope (John Paul II), but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the church, although I might well wish that they would leave.

Acting with Christ

We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection, we remind ourselves of the Grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to seek those things which are above, but because the day seems to us to be, in some sense, an icon of the age which we anticipate. – St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit. Taken from

A time ago, a daily Mass communicant I know was standing outside of a local parish church shortly before daily Mass began. As I was walking toward the church she was walking away toward the parking lot. I said to her, “Aren’t you able to go to Mass today?” She replied, “No, I ate a late breakfast and so broke the Communion fast; and there’s no sense in going if I can’t receive.”

I kept walking, but was totally thrown off by that comment and was torn by a mixture of, “I know what she’s getting at,” and “That’s the only reason she goes to Mass?” So I turned around and said to her, “Hey, you can at least make a spiritual Communion, right?” She stopped, turned back and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for mentioning that. I’ll go.”

Over the next several weeks I thought long and hard about that comment, about what it presupposes and what more there is to it. So I thought I would share a few thoughts from those scattered thoughts.

Mass as liturgy

In Catholic lingo, the Mass is “liturgy.” The Catechism beautifully defines liturgy for us as “an action of the whole Christ (Christus totus).” So, when we participate in the celebration of the Mass we are participating in the action of the whole Christ, i.e. the Risen Christ and his Body, the Church, acting in unison.

When I hear that I say, I want in on that action! But then I have to ask myself, what exactly is that action?

Well, the Church captures the entirely of Christ’s action in a pithy phrase you’ll hear now and again in the texts of the Mass: the paschal mystery. The paschal mystery is the comprehension-exceeding mystery of Christ’s “Passover” from death to life, his death and resurrection. But in truth it encompasses the entire saving work of God in Christ, from his humble conception in the womb of the Virgin to his glorious coming in power at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and reveal the new creation. The liturgy, therefore, contains all of this like a cup overflowing.

Let me share with you the journal entry I wrote after this incident in which I tried to capture some of the immense dynamism of this divine liturgy we mere mortals are called to enter.

In the liturgy, Christ draws the totality of humanity into the fullness of a God who is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), forgiving us, healing us, sanctifying us, illumining us, giving us a share in the divine life and inviting us to cooperate with him in “storing up treasure in heaven” by gathering up – through faith, hope and love – the materials of the first creation into the new creation. In the liturgy, our small labors, kindled by love for God and enemy, feed the fire that streams from the Throne of God (Daniel 7:10); that fire that will one Day consume the whole cosmos in God’s absolute and saving judgment on all of history. In the liturgy, we mingle our voices with all the Powers of heaven who ceaselessly sing before God and the Lamb; and we fore-taste already now the coming Sabbath of time’s blessed demise. In the liturgy, we are immersed in a sensual sea of signs and symbols that tremble beneath the weight of Glory and blaze with the joys of Paradise. In the liturgy, the in-breaking of God into history transgresses the bounds of time and space and crashes into our unsuspecting present – oh my! In the liturgy, our sins are drowned in God’s mercy, our weaknesses suffused with Christ’s power. In the liturgy, we are, in the words of St. Hildegard of Bingen, “drenched in the speech of God” as God’s Word-made-text overspills the Scriptures into hearts of flesh, uplifted in wafting melodies while at once shattering hearts of stone. In the liturgy, our bodies, bound to the fleshy Word by the Heavenly Spirit, are offered up in Christ’s bloody at-one-ing sacrifice to the everlasting Father; and along with our bodies is taken up, into the Ascending Wounds, all that our faithfully hoping sacrificial love has consecrated in each moment of each hour of each day. In the liturgy, our thanks for the gifts of creation and redemption are united to the thanksgiving of Christ; and our supplications on behalf of the living and the dead are inserted into the ceaseless pleading of Christ before the Face of the Father for us and for our salvation. In the liturgy, the church becomes, in the words of St. Germanus of Constantinople, “an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about.” In the liturgy, every ritual gesture, every sacred song, everything consecrated for worship that is seen and heard and touched and smelled and tasted transacts the divine-human communion that burns deep in the Heart of Christ. Pope Paul VI called these the “presences” of Christ in the liturgy, affirming that from the moment we enter the church and douse ourselves in holy water to the moment – impelled by the command, Ite, “Go!” – we sprint to our car to speed off and proclaim the Gospel with our lives in the City of Man, gathering fresh materials for the next Mass, Christ assails us from every which way. No escape. Blessed captivity!

I don’t know about you, but that suffices to get me to Mass, Communion or not.

Enter the whole paschal mystery

Yes, worthy reception of Holy Communion is a solemn and supremely graced moment in the Mass when we “unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body” (CCC#1331). But, as I have argued above, the grace of the liturgy is far more than that one moment. The entirety of the celebration teems with divine life, is rife with singular opportunities to participate in the paschal “action” of Christ re-creating, redeeming, healing, transfiguring, transforming, sacrificing the whole universe in God, beginning with your heart.  So never ever think that participating in the liturgy when you cannot receive the Body and Blood of Christ is somehow “not worth it,” and when you do receive, receive with “fear and trembling,” making the words prayed before reception of the holy Eucharist by Eastern Christians your own:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen. Of thy Mystic Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom. Not unto judgement nor unto condemnation be my partaking of thy Holy Mysteries, O Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body.

Hymn of the Universe

Let me leave you with an extraordinary quote written by Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, (1881-1955), who was a French Jesuit theologian and scientist renowned for his pioneering field work in paleontology. Though some of his work was censured by Rome and he was prohibited from publishing theological works, he was obedient and he produced some extraordinarily creative insights. In quoting him here, I share the sentiments of St. Vincent of Lérins who, when quoting the condemned heretic Origen, famously said, “Who would not rather be wrong with Origen than right with anyone else?” This quote is taken from a long prayer Fr. Chardin wrote while working in a remote part of China. As he did not have what he needed to celebrate Mass one day, he instead offered himself and the world to God. Its profound sentiments have inspired my own ability to enter into the Mass with a greater capacity for offering than a mere tithe check or a few weakly collected sentiments.

Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this deep that I thus desire all the fibers of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Our Wild God

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Taken from

A friend of mine shared with me a story last weekend about a malapropism that found its way into the pre-Mass announcements at a parish one Sunday morning. The opening song for that day was that wonderful hymn, written by 19th century British composer Fr. Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The lector, who is quite excellent, got up before Mass began and read the opening announcements. When she got to the end, she proclaimed in a loud and confident voice:

Please join us in singing our opening song, “There’s a Wilderness in God’s Mercy.”

The choir cracked up.

Felix Culpa

After chuckling a bit myself, I began, predictably, to muse on the theological possibilities found in this happy mistake. I thought of the meaning of the word “wilderness,” which comes from the Old English wild-deor, “wild deer.” It refers to lands populated by untamed, undomesticated animals that escape the control of human beings, or, more generally, to the wider natural world that is unconcerned with the orderly concerns of human culture and enterprise. It is a world fraught with danger and mystery, strangely seductive to those who loathe the sleepy comforts of an overly-controlled suburban contentment that populates our more or less gated lives. Wilderness is where the sleepy must go if they are to awaken and escape from their binding attachments that turn comfort into an idol, safety into a prison, sameness into ossifying chains that keep suburbanites from soaring into the City of God. As Thoreau said in Walden,

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I have a friend who loves the to engage in period forays into the wilds, to trek outdoors where he loves hiking and camping, adores the discomforts of grunge and sweat and mosquitoes and unexpected downpours. He’s been hit by lightening (via the water his boat was floating in), bitten by snakes and attacked by hawks when he ventured too near their nest. By week, he’s a professional businessman. I asked him once why he felt so drawn to such things and he said,

It’s what keeps my soul from going stale. It’s where I see God most clearly, when all the clutter and busyness of life peels away. It’s where I can drop the Type A obsession with neatness and be messy in God’s order of things. Out in nature it’s like God’s saying to me: you humans, you’re so small, and you’re part of something much bigger than yourselves, a world you just can’t control. You don’t try to control it, you just find your place in the ecosystem, in an order not of your making. It’s got a beauty that’s way too easy to forget is already all around you all the time when your surrounded all day by concrete walls and papers and virtual media. It’s like the week that grows in the sidewalk crack, defying our claim to bend all nature to our utilitarian will. After I get back from being in the forests and swamps, I can see God much better in the paper and concrete; and in the people around me.

Wild at Heart

God created the wilderness and asked man to make of it a Garden, but Man, having rebelled, was expelled from the Garden into the wilderness. But our vocation remains, a vocation to transform the wilderness into a Garden or, maybe, to discover in the wilderness the Garden God is fashioning. Something like that.

In the Scriptures God, who is himself a wandering Nomad of sorts, has a certain affection for journeying with his chosen people into the wilds of a trackless and barren desert. It’s the place where God leads Israel when they’ve become overly controlled or controlling, enslaved in pseudo-worlds of their own making. These are worlds populated by false gods, or by a domesticated God fashioned into an idol, a work of human ingenuity that strips God of all his dangerous attributes that threaten to expose humanity’s injustices, deceptions, guilt or inhuman malice.

If there’s anything that true about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it’s that he is essentially wild, fearfully uncontrollable, and absolutely free from all necessity save the exigencies of his own divine nature (e.g. his truth, goodness, fidelity, mercy). Every biblical character who encounters God must be at once told, “Do not be afraid!” because to meet God is to be set off balance as unclean meets the All-Holy, injustice meets the All-Just, or some such juxtaposed contrast that shatters petrified hearts, refashioning them in the Potter’s free-wheeling Hands. Even in the Christian mystical tradition, one frequently hears the mystic describe the “shock” of encountering God with the stock phrase, “of sudden!” God’s coming, without warning, comes like a sudden squall, though, unlike the natural phenomenon, the divine Storm comes to wreak havoc only in order to recreate and restore the original order.

You might say that the essence of the covenant God makes with Israel, fulfilled in Christ, can be summed up as an invitation of God to us, and our affirmative consent, to allow “God to be God” as God with us. That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us,” but on on God’s terms, not ours. That’s who Jesus was and is, God with us on God’s terms, even (and especially) in the face of our violent resistance and rejection — and there, crucified, God-with-us reveals himself to be, beyond all our wildest imaginings, unrelentlingly merciful. And one need only think of the resurrection appearances — strange, unexpected, terrifying, bewildering, awful, inducing worship — to sense that this revelation of God is ruinous for the preconceptions of sinful men and women who wish God to be God on their terms.

There’s something gravely dangerous, disconcerting, about surrendering to God’s uncontrolled nature, especially inasmuch as our fallen nature, fashioned originally in his image, has marred the divine likeness by attempting to seize control of the divine image by fashioning idols, staging a coup to overthrow God and, ultimately, plotting to slay him. Those who choose thus set themselves at odds with God, against his Face and his wildness, suddenly discover that he appears, to the reprobate, to be wrath. As God has not changed, and cannot change, we discern that it is our posture toward him that has altered. But God, whose justice is ever-rife with prodigal mercy, reveals to us the way back, draws us by “bands of mercy” (Hosea 11:4) toward the path of life, which is life lived in concert with God’s untethered, unstrained and pity-full love. When the author of Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we might read there not only divine wrath but, for those willing to repent of their deadly coup, God’s far more fearful mercy. It is an unyieldingly, mercilessly relentless mercy that effects in the willing a total and complete remedy that heals our sins to the deepest roots.

St. John of the Cross speaks so powerfully of this “labor of mercy” in the Dark Night. There he argues that those who consent to permit God’s unchained mercy a free reign in their deepest depths feel simultaneously out of control and absolutely secure as God, the absolutely trustworthy Divine Surgeon, sees to the death of death within us. Here, John says, prayer becomes challenging as we sense that God is remaking us within, deconstructing our sins and distortions, and recreating within us the Kingdom of God. Those who pass through this final purifying “night” discover within them the Dawn’s rising, and they themselves become wild with the folly of the Risen Christ, wise with the wisdom of the Cross, are propelled to and fro by the freely blowing Spirit, drunk with divine love’s madness and freed (as Augustine says) to love and do as they will. But none of this can be had until they have been freed from self-will, from illusions and flights of fantasy, grounded in the Commandments and the virtues, for there is no true freedom until one’s will has been chained to the divine will by obedience. Those who seek freedom without obedience worship themselves and seek a false wilderness that leads to death and the land of illusions.

Wild in Mind

A last meditation on the “Wilderness in God’s Mercy.” In our theological tradition, we affirm that human language has the capacity to reveal the truth of God’s transcendent nature (called kataphatic, or “saying” theology), but we also affirm that human language is very fragile in is capacity to comprehend God’s nature (called apophatic, or “unsaying” theology). Theologians try to balance these two in “the ascent of the mind to God,” climbing an analogical ladder that we are at-once climbing and being lifted up on. Our knowledge of God, as we grow in intimacy with him, increasingly enters into contact with this unstable tension between “saying” and “unsaying,” stammering and singing our way into the mystery of what Meister Eckhart called the “vast and silent desert of Divinity.” God is vast beyond our every capacity to “think big” about him, which, for the theologian should not stand as a reason to despair but rather as a reason to give thanks! In the words a small child in Iowa who once misspoke at Mass, miming the proper liturgical acclamation that follows the biblical readings, “Thanks to Big God.”

It’s a tension that elicits with the theologian (or any person of faith) humility, wonder, desire, longing, terror, dizziness, joy and ecstasy, widening our horizons and making us evermore capax Dei, capable of God. It’s why theologians must also be men and women of prayer, as we strive to experience the Mysteries we explore and render ourselves vulnerable to suffering the coming of the real God, the true God, the living God, and not the God of our puny imaginings or warped desires. In other words, theologians are those whose hearts, having been purified, can see God under the form of an inchoate glory and called to share our vision with the Church. Or, for those of us who know we are far from that purity, at least give voice to those who have seen thus.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

Let me end this already too-long post (which I will give you rest from tomorrow with a post-less day) with some fav quotes from two of the great Masters of God’s wilderness, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Ps-Dionysius.

St. Gregory:

The feelings that come to a man who stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts. When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord.

To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of those who seek his Face?

It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.


How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all thins while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?

Paschal Providence

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

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

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

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

Divine Providence, not Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permitted in view of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Providence, I.N.R.I.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

When Divine Providence becomes our vision

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

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

St. Olga Nikolaevna Romanova from

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


Saved by Love, for Love

alessandro serenelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel of Math

[As I am still recovering from an intensive retreat I recently gave, I am thin on words. But here's a fun and fleeting thought for today.]

As I once collapsed under the weight of advanced calculus in college, this Blog post title strikes terror in my soul.

I used to have a t-shirt back in college (that I took off on the spot and gave to a complete stranger who said she thought it was ‘so cool’ — something you do when you’re an undergrad) that had this on the back:

I wish I had it again.

I recall my physics professor in a lecture back in 1988 at Florida State said,

If there is a God, his first language is math.

Thank God my own theological work does not require this language, though if I were a real theologian like Augustine, I would be more committed to learning:

God’s infinity would still be of a higher magnitude, an infinity of different kind. His infinity is above all possible temporal (and spatial) infinity; it is an infinity of infinities, whose magnitude can be dimly imagined by means of mathematical infinity. It is an infinity of infinities also in that, As St. Augustine said in City of God, “all infinity is in some ineffable way made finite to God,” since no infinity is incomprehensible to God, he can count numbers without succession of thought. God is even able to count without numbers, which assumes that there is no number equal to the quantity of all numbers, that is, no number, to use modern parlance, expressing cardinality of integers (which is aleph zero). This is no hindrance to God who is able to see the entire sequence of numbers without looking at these numbers one by one. Infinity of these numbers can be grasped in one act of comprehension. – Adam Drozdek, “Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor”

Reading Drozdek’s book, as a friend of mine words it, often feels like a dog watching TV: captivated but uncomprehending.

On that note, let me encourage you to watch this ~9 minute video on “falling in love with math,” and then apply its principles to evangelization and catechesis. My son shared it with me and said: “This is how the Church should approach making the faith attractive.” Yes.

Here it is:

Happy Feast, O.P.!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking with Thomas

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

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

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

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

Happy Feast, O.P.!

With St. Thomas now, let us pray:

Lay geniuses

Vatican II’s vision of lay sanctity needs a new St. Francis of Assisi, stripped of a religious habit and re-clothed in a secular baptismal garb. His 13th century mendicant revolution transformed cloistered monastic life into an outwardly focused, mobile, mission-minded movement.

Someone asked me to re-post this post I wrote 16 months ago. I reworked it a bit over last Fall, and it likely needs more editing, but as I have only received 2 requests in 4 years to re-post a specific post, how could I resist? It recapitulates some of the points I made a few weeks ago on the lay vocation, but for what it’s worth, here it is…

This post began with a hope to simply offer a few brief thoughts on a radio interview I heard last week, but as you’ll see my meandering mind got the best of me. Pardon its length and its ragged edges.

I was listening to a radio show featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and lively faith in Christ. It was a beautiful and moving story. This sudden life-rocking roundabout eventually led him to quit his highly successful job in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods.

It was indeed inspiring, and I admired the man for his courage. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself really perturbed. After the man recounted for the interviewer the moment he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and turn to selling religious goods, the interviewer said,

That’s really great. How inspiring for our listeners to hear that you abandoned your worldly pursuits, like St. Matthew, in order to serve God and his holy Church. We need more of you.

Out of my visceral reaction, I thought, “Oh, yes, as opposed to the uninspiring choice of remaining in a secular career to serve God in his Church!”


A clarification aside here. The word “secular,” which comes from the Latin word saecula, meaning “age” or “span of a lifetime,” refers in theology to this present time-bound world, the “temporal order,” in contradistinction to the “Age to Come,” the heaven of God’s eternity. Also, in the New Testament, the phrase “the world” (in Greek, ho kosmos) can refer to those elements of creation opposed to God, to creation as made good by God, or to creation as a “theater of redemption” loved by God even in its rebellion.

Though the word “secular” has come to refer in pop Catholic-speak to hostile cultural forces that sideline and demonize religion, here I will use the word secular (and worldly) in a more complex theological sense. However, in addition to the senses I just mentioned, I will also use secular/worldly to refer to those dimensions of our life in the world that are not explicitly religious or related to church institutional structures, liturgical worship, acts of piety, etc., i.e. all that is not directly related to the virtue of religion. In this positive sense, secular refers not to what is irreligious (which implies disdain or hostility) but to what is non-religious. For a person of faith, it’s important to affirm that there’s lots to talk about, think about and do that’s not religious.

For Catholics, the “religious” and the “secular” are seen to each possess a certain rightful autonomy relative to one another, and are understood to be each distinct but integrally related to the other. Such a view would reject any notion that the secular is somehow is absorbed into the religious or that the religious is absorbed into the secular, just as it would reject the idea that religious and secular dimensions of this world are either unrelated or opposed (which represent the growing consensus of Western culture). It was this necessary distinction that Pope Paul VI was thinking of when he said,

Here is the answer; and here is the new concept, of great importance in the practical field, the Church agrees to recognize the world as such, that is, free, autonomous, sovereign, and in a certain sense, self-sufficient. She does not try to make it an instrument for her religious purposes, far less for power of the temporal order. The Church also admits a certain emancipation for her faithful of the Catholic laity, when they act in the domain of temporal reality. She attributes to them freedom of action and a responsibility of their own, and she trusts them.

The Lay Call

Now, it may be that this Catholic businessman felt after his radical conversion that he was unable to maintain his new-found integrity within the matrix of the morally compromised business relationships he had previously established, and that Jesus was indeed calling him away into a religious-goods business. That’s not my judgment to make. And though I don’t know what the interviewer really meant by his comment, here’s the underlying message that I find detestable: when it comes to radically serving God, secular careers constitute a form of “settling for less,” while ecclesial, religious or even non-profit careers are the higher, more-radical way. Likely, I would not have been so attentive to this point had I not, since I came back to my faith in 1987, seen this mindset at work so many times. Though it is rarely blatant, and mostly latent, it lurks in the shadows as a sort of pious concession to contemporary culture’s secular-sacred schism.

Such an approach implies that coming near to Christ forces the faithful into an option crisis: secular or sacred, godly religious/churchy careers or godless secular/worldly careers. And flowing from that logic, those who convert and leave their secular careers to work for the church, engage in ministry, or to do overtly religious things are valorized and championed as the truly radical witnesses of real discipleship, superseding the choice of their still-secular counterparts to muddle along in the shadows.

Ordinary and Extra-

I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by secular-career Catholics, “I wish I could work for God like you.” Though many years ago I would have probably agreed in some way, after reading the Pope’s magna carta on the laity, Christifidelis laici, for the first time back in 1997 my whole worldview was upturned. Not long after reading CL, I had a university math professor (I’ll call him Frank) express his regret that he could not be more involved in parish activities and ministries, and say to me that he really envied my job working so close to God every day. I said something like this back to him,

Yes it’s a privilege to work as a layman for the church, but you have to know that the church’s teaching is that I am an abnormal layman, an exception to the universal call of the laity to be secular like you. And my vocational abnormality exists to serve your vocational normality. As a man with a secular career, as a family man, you are exactly what the church says the laity are called to be, and being there where God wants you makes you very close to Him. The truth is, God has called me into the church’s employ for one single core purpose: to support what you are about in the world. That’s the real privilege for me.

I recall him saying, “I feel like a thousand pound weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders.”

As a man long employed by the Church, I obviously am a firm believer in the lay ecclesial ministry/career path as a genuine calling from God. In fact, for those laity who believe themselves called to serve in voluntary or employed ministries, the Bishops have spelled out a program and vision for their rightful place in the Church Institutional. But the fact remains, mine is not the ordinary or even preferred career path for the vast majority of lay men and women. It’s extra-ordinary, non-normative. The orthodox Catholic vision is that the essential character of the lay vocation is secular, meaning that the vocation of the laity is to primarily live, play and work in the temporal world, to be fully engaged citizens of the City of Man, engaging in the ordinary circumstances of secular affairs or domestic life.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla

From whence the temptation?

Last summer a priest friend of mine and I were talking about the many possible reasons that people who have radical conversions immediately want to abandon all-things-secular. Among the many points we shared, I found this particular point made by the priest to be very powerful,

For those who suddenly “get” Christ, living in the secular world while not being “of the world” becomes a great challenge, with lots of dissonance between what’s in you and what’s out there. Being called to love the world God’s way and remain in the world to consecrate the world to God, while not shunning or fleeing or disdaining the world, is as at times like a crucifixion. Working and living outside the ecclesial safe-zone is filled with ambiguities and ragged edges. We need to help people see the “church institutional” as a mother who makes a safe place to come to and be filled with strength, but to see the “church missionary” as a mother that thrusts them out the door to become saints.

It’s risky business to bear the mind of Christ into the City of Man, and in a post-Christian culture that increasingly judges Christ’s mind to be mentally ill, it’s even harder. But Christians, martyrs at heart, have always been risk-takers who are willing to chance being labeled a madman or fool for love of Christ. They’re on the Church’s front lines, engaging in God’s risky business as God’s foolish geniuses.

Personally, I have always been far more inspired by Christian men and women who live their faith outside the walls of the Church, fighting the good fight on the front lines, bringing the light of Christ to life’s darkest corners, revealing the goodness of creation and culture. For these lay saints, all forms of work, civic involvement, cultural activities, marriage and family life serve as their personal altar of sacrifice set up in the midst of a cosmic Colosseum.

And we must never forget that it was the Colosseum that offered Roman Christians in antiquity the very best PR for Christ.

Staying Power

So, what we really need hold up in the Church are the lay witnesses who encounter Christ in a life-altering way and subsequently heroically choose to remain in their secular careers, retain their “worldly” friends and acquaintances as befits their own personal limitations, embrace more fully their spousal and domestic duties, uphold more vigorously their civic responsibilities, feeling wholly at home in non-church environments among friends, co-workers and strangers of all persuasions and ways of life. In a word, the Church needs secular saints whose vibrant religious-church life naturally thrusts them back out into the secular world as their natural habitat and place of flourishing. We need secular saints who see that the leaven of the Gospel needs to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world.

We especially need young people who fall in love with Jesus only to find their passion for future secular careers set aflame, allowing them to become a new “creative minority” in our society. And the Church ministers, lay and ordained, must help them in their discernment and encourage them in their vocation and mission to take on secular careers. They alone will serve as the wellsprings of a new culture, creating new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salespeople, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors, new technologists who each excel in their respective field, being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel while being at home in the midst of the world.

The Church must help them acquire what Vatican II called the “lay genius,” that they might become adept at doing the world in Christ, speaking all languages, living in all states of life, and mastering all cultures in order to offer all humanity the chance to think with them. These world-wise Catholics are ever-ready to speak with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to think that the radical, converted and faithful Catholic is only “working for God” if they work for the church, do ministry, abandon their careers or secular interests or at least view their secular ties as necessary evils. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries or religious practices are essential servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way. And let me note here that doing the world God’s way is the very purpose of the magnificent social teaching of our church. God’s gift of this magisterial teaching at this time in history is meant to give birth to a fresh flowering of holiness in the communion of saints: secular lay saints. And it’s primarily through such godly secular saints, in whom sacred and secular are reconciled, that God will heal the ills of godless secularism.

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. — Gauduim et Spes #43

A final “unsettling” anecdote

A young Catholic man I knew at Florida State University once mentioned to me that, after his conversion to Christ, he felt “guilty” every time he did anything secular. He said,

I feel like I always have to be doing church things, or talking about God, to feel like I’m close to God. And I feel like every time I do something outside of that religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with non-religious friends, I’m somehow settling. Even if I’m not really doing anything wrong, I always feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it! I guess I feel that religious and secular things are like oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s worldly stuff, and never the two shall meet.

The message I tried to convey to him was that he really radical lay Catholic finds him/herself in love with all that is genuinely human, and sees that every aspect of life, if carried out in the spirit of Christ, is an integral part of your path to holiness. Though it was clear that his experiments with sex, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had left him with a long and hard journey ahead to integrate his new-found faith with his moral character, ensuring his restlessness would be around for a while, I wanted him to understand clearly the positive vision of a reconciled religious faith and secular life that should inform and motivate his desire to be a saint. If he continued to drink in the toxic “split of faith and life” model that Gaudium et Spes describes so well, he would always feel caught in an irresolvable conflict between God-church-religion and the rest of life in the world. And anyone caught in such a conflict for too long will either abandon the faith or abandon the world.

Integrated Holiness

Going to Mass, praying the rosary, going on pilgrimages, spending a holy hour, talking about God are all part of growing in lay holiness. Reading the local newspaper with a cup of coffee, going to a movie with a friend, playing cards with your kids, tinkering with your car, going hunting, playing pool with co-workers, learning to dance, enjoying sports, reading a good novel, making love to your spouse, or sipping a glass of Chianti with your bride while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter, all the while talking about the world, is likewise part of growing in lay holiness.

Post-resurrection breakfast
John 21:12-13

O Lay saints, end the schism that sin had driven between God and the secular Garden He made for you to labor to cultivate and to celebrate with joy as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Remind the world that all that nothing is good in the world is strange to you, and that nothing broken in the world, when purified and transfigured by God through our lives, is lost. Remind the world that the riot of beauty that is our worldly pilgrim home will be caught up into the beatific happiness in the next world. The vision of God and the goodness of creation do, and will, both constitute our eternal happiness. As my moral theology professor in grad school pithily put it, “The Risen Jesus still loves fish sandwiches (cf Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12).”

There are two words that frame the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Venite, “Come!” and Ite, “Go!”  These two words encompass the entire spirituality and mission of the lay vocation: to come to the Eucharist with all the “material” of your worldy labors, to give them over to Christ, and to receive them back transformed in the reconciling fire of His God-Man heart. O laity, made priests of the world in baptism, go out and labor in the world, making of it new bread and new wine susceptible to Christ’s consecrating power. Then, at the end of the day, bring it to Christ in his Eucharist that He might multiply it for the nourishment of many and keep it safe in His joyous Paradise for the everlasting Day of God and man’s immortal wedding Feast!

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” — Matthew 20:1-2