Thérèse 2

In the wake of yesterday’s amazing feast, I couldn’t help but allow Thérèse to speak again. Two of my all-time favorites:

But now I realize that true charity consists in putting up with all one’s neighbors faults, never being surprised by his weakness, and being inspired by the least of his virtues . . . When God, under the old law, told His people to love their neighbors as themselves, He had not yet come down to earth. As He knew how much we love ourselves, He could not ask us to do more. But when Jesus gave His apostles a “new commandment, His own commandment,” He did not ask only that we should love our neighbors as ourselves but that we should love them as He loves them and as He will love them to the end of time. O Jesus, I know You command nothing that is impossible. You know how weak and imperfect I am, and You know only too well that I could never love the other nuns as You love them if You Yourself did not love them within me.

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Though I’m quite unworthy, I love to say the Divine Office every day, but apart from that I cannot bring myself to hunt through books for beautiful prayers. There are so many of them that I get a headache. Besides, each prayer seems lovelier than the next. I cannot possibly say them all and do not know which to choose, I behave like children who cannot read: I tell God very simply what I want and He always understands. For me, prayer is an upward leap of the heart, an untroubled glance towards heaven, a cry of gratitude and love which I utter from the depths of sorrow as well as from the heights of joy. It has a supernatural grandeur which expands the soul and unites it with God. I say an Our Father or a Hail Mary when I feel so spiritually barren that I cannot summon up a single worthwhile thought. These two prayers fill me with rapture and feed and satisfy my soul.

The Best Sermon I Ever Heard

Pastor James Toney

In his really excellent book, The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher recounts the story of the events surrounding his younger sister Ruthie’s death, events that witness to the extraordinary character of humble faith in small-town Louisiana. Dreher recently posted my favorite excerpt from the book — story of his friend James Toney, a country preacher, who eulogized his mother at her funeral. It’s really powerful, and worth reading to the very end:

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Miss Clophine Toney died in hospice care that spring. She was 82. On the day of her burial, I picked Mam and Paw up and we drove to the funeral home in Zachary.  James, her son and my childhood peewee baseball teammate, eulogized his mother. I knew my old friend had become a part-time evangelist, but I had never heard him preach. He stayed up all night praying for the right words to say. He stood behind the lectern next to his mother’s open casket, flexed his arms under his gray suit and black shirt, then turned the Spirit loose on the 40 or so mourners in the room.

“During Christmastime, my mother would go out and pick up pecans,” he began, in his husky voice. “She wasn’t very well educated. Today they tryin’ to educate us in everything. Gotta stay with the next game, gotta make sure we go to college. We can’t get too far behind, because we might not make enough money, and that would make our lives miserable. My God, we gettin’ educated in everything, but we not gettin’ educated in morals. We not gettin’ educated in sacrifice.”

James said his mother was poor and uneducated, but during the fall pecan season, she worked hard gathering pecans from under every tree she could find.

“She was carryin’ a cross,” he said. “Because let me tell you something, if you don’t sacrifice for your brother, if you don’t sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross.”

Miss Clophine took the money she made selling pecans and went to the dollar store in St. Francisville, where, despite her own great need, she spent it on presents for friends and family.

“Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those meant the most,” James said. “Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give.”

James pointed to Mam and Paw, sitting in the congregation.

“She used to give Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy presents. And I’ll say this about Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy Dreher, they were so close to my mother and my father. They sacrificed every year, whether my mother and father have enough to give them a gift of not. They gave. We talkin’ about sacrifice. We talkin’ about whether you’re carryin’ your cross today.”

As a child, James said, he would cross the river into Cajun country to stay with his Grandma Mose, Clophine’s mother. There he would eat a traditional dish called couche-couche, an old-timey Cajun version of fried cornmeal mush. Grandma Mose served couche-couche and milk nearly every morning, and little James loved it.

“But every now and then,” he continued, stretching his words for effect, “we wouldn’t eat couche-couche and milk. We’d eat something called bouille.”

Bouille, pronounced “boo-yee,” is cornmeal porridge, what the poorest of the Cajun poor ate.

“I didn’t like bouille. I frowned up. Mama made me that bouille sometime.Bouille tasted bad. It wasn’t good,” he said. “But let me tell you something: you may have family members, and you may have friends, that will feed you some bouille. It may not be food. They may not be treating you the way you think you ought to be treated. They may be doing this or doing that. You may be giving them a frown. But we may be talking about real sacrifice.”

James’s voice rose, and his arms began flying. This man was under conviction. He told the congregation that if a man lives long enough, he’s going to see his family, friends, and neighbors die, and no matter what their sins and failings, the day will come when we wish we had them back, flaws and all.

The preacher turned to his mother’s body, lying in the open casket on his left, and his voice began to crack.

“If my mama could give me that bouille one more time. If she could give me that bouille one more time. I wouldn’t frown up. I wouldn’t frown up. I would eat that bouille just like I ate that couche-couche. I would sacrifice my feelings. I would sacrifice my pride, if she could just give me that bouille one more time.”

I glanced at Mam, who was crying. Paw grimaced and held on to his cane.

“Let me tell you, you got family members and friends who ain’t treating you right,” James said, pointing at the congregation, his voice rising. “Listen to me! Sacrifice! Sacrifice! — when they givin’ you that bouille. Eat that bouillewith a smile. Take what they givin’ you with a smile. That’s what Jesus did. He took that bouille when they was throwing it at him, when they was spittin’ at him, he took it. He sacrificed.

“My mother didn’t have much education, but she knew how to sacrifice. She knew that in the middle of the sacrifice, you smile. You smile.”

The evangelist looked once more at his mother’s body, and said, in a voice filled with the sweetest yearning, “Mama, I wish you could give me thatbouille one more time.”

James stepped away, yielding the lectern to the hospice chaplain, who gave a more theologically learned sermon. Truth to tell, I didn’t listen closely. The power and the depth of what I had just heard from that Starhill country preacher, James Toney, and the lesson his mother’s life left to those who knew her, stunned me. And it made me thing of Ruthie, who lived and died as Miss Clophine had done: taking the bouille and giving, and smiling, all for love, as Jesus had done.

This was true religion. James showed me that. I tell you, the greatest preacher who ever stood in the pulpit at Chartres could not have spoken the Gospel any more purely.

The funeral director invited the congregation to come forward and say our last goodbyes to Miss Clophine before driving out to the cemetery. I walked forward with my arm around Mam’s shoulder. We stood together at Miss Clo’s side. Her body was scrawny and withered, and it was clad in white pajamas, a new set, with pink stripes. I felt Mam tremble beneath my arm. She drew her fingers to her lips, kissed them, and touched them to Miss Clophine’s forehead.  In that moment, I thought of the Virgin Mary’s song, from the Gospel of Luke:

He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,

And hath exalted the humble.

He hath filled the hungry with good things,

And the rich he hath sent empty away.

James buried Miss Clophine at the family cemetery, on a hill overlooking Thompson Creek, in the same graveyard where Roy Dale Craven, who played baseball with James and me, lies. Thousands of cars pass by on Highway 61 every day, and the people inside never know what treasures lay buried on the hilltop, just beyond the trees. Those people have somewhere to get to, and speed along, unawares.

Grateful for the Sea, הגליל

As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee… (Matthew 4:18)

My wife and I agree that one of our life’s most unexpected blessings has been finding a home near the water, a few blocks’ walk away from the levee along Lake Pontchartrain’s south shore.

The Refulgence of Galilee 

When I was growing up, my family spent lots of time along the Rhode Island shoreline, especially in and around a wonderful small town called, as divine serendipity would have it, Galilee. I fell in love then with the ocean, wholly taken with its dark and turgid mysteries that circumscribed all manner of aquatic life (eels, blue fish, flounder, porgy, or even occasional nocturnal flourishes of bioluminescent plankton). I was taken with the oscillating and restless play between stormy danger and placid calm; taken with the bracing vastness beyond Narraganset Bay and the embracing intimacy within Wickford Cove; taken with the water’s capacity to gather people in chaotic order around those majestic Tall Ships at Newport Harbor, only then all at once to find ourselves isolated in an anchored solitude on the Atlantic ocean far past Block Island.

But the true theft by heaven of my childhood imagination was left to the magnetic and mystic blaze of a starry night (only to be found far away from the man-lit shore) where the billion-star Milky Way arranged its oriental escape from, and occidental plunge back into, the ocean’s indiscernible horizons. This, above all, took me away from my small life’s many cares and gave me an inkling of a Grand and Free God who ebbs and flows between hiding from, and peeking out of, creation — at me.

So now, as I have the privilege of walking or biking, fishing or just sitting aimlessly gazing across Pontchartrain’s 24 mile stretch, it’s Galilee again for me; though now I can more knowingly see, feel and maybe hear the rustle, if I’m lucky, even beyond an inkling, of Jesus walking along the shore. Here. Now.

How? A wise and elder theologian once gave me a gift — an awe-some image capable of sacramentalizing my shoreline prayer:

Imagine what it was like for God in the flesh, with human eyes, feelings, imagination, looking out at His own creation with delight; across the seas that He made teem with life; that He once spoke into existence; and remembering that Day in His divine-human mind as if it were only yesterday. In your prayer before the ocean, ask for Him to share that delight with you…

The Sea

I must leave you with a lecture by Peter Kreeft that I think is a masterpiece of language and theology and humanity — about the sacramentality of the sea. It’s a bit long (~40 minutes), but absolutely worth taking the time to listen when you can.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3tO2hSPCxk

St. Benedict the Creative

Note: the following is a rumination taken from an email exchange, so it’s kinda sketchy. But I thought it contained a worthwhile insight to share.

Someone wrote me recently with some pointed questions about the progress of the radical cultural revolutions (or as my emailer worded it, the “re-valuation of values”) that seem to have come to full-term, and are, as he put it, “giving birth to a brave new world where truth is a commodity, love is increasingly self-absorbed, meaning is shallow and life is cheap.” His question was: “How does the Church effectively respond to this?” A monumental question.

The simple answer we concocted: By being herself.

Pope Emeritus Benedict proposed throughout his pontificate the power of “creative minorities” to effect long-term transformation in societies, and argued that the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Church to return to a radical fidelity and holiness among all its members will likely mean, in the context of equally radical secularization, a smaller Church. Creative minorities are small sub-groups within a larger society, made up of an intentional community of deeply invested people who share a common vision and mission, who pro-actively and creatively engage with the larger culture in order to offer a transformative “leavening” influence that is measured not in 5-year plans, but in centuries. This is essentially how Benedict interprets the explosive development of the early Church’s influence within the hostile Roman empire. The early Church was intentional, tightly networked, inspiring, engaging and creative — it was a church of martyrs that was rendered intensely intentional by the high cost of membership, inspiring by means of a lofty ethic of mercy and justice, engaging by means of an impassioned quest for making the living Truth known, and creative by adapting the one Gospel to the many and diverse cultures that made up the Empire. Like the early Church, ours, to make a like difference must show itself to be smitten with the Spirit-filled energy of the re-creating Gospel whose proclamation still echoes even now with the fiery voices of the original apostolic age.

This creative minority, for Benedict, will offer a compelling witness by their bold fidelity to the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by their fierce commitment to the demands of justice and mercy, by their life of community, and will retain their clear identity in Christ even as they openly and joyfully dialogue with any and all who wish to seek with them the truth in love.

Benedict’s vision is reminiscent of the last lines in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where MacIntyre looks in hope for a new St. Benedict, the 6th century Father of that wildly successful “creative minority” of Christians called monks. Here are those lines:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age … and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. … A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman [empire] and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that [empire]. What they set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. … This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict.

Why wait? Let’s be ourselves now.

Pray for Egypt’s Christians…

It was nighttime and 10,000 Islamists were marching down the most heavily Christian street in this ancient Egyptian city, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.” A half-dozen kids were spray-painting “Boycott the Christians” on walls, supervised by an adult.

While Islamists are on the defensive in Cairo following the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, in Assiut and elsewhere in Egypt’s deep south they are waging a stepped-up hate campaign, claiming the country’s Christian minority somehow engineered Morsi’s downfall.

“Tawadros is a dog,” says a spray-painted insult, referring to Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Copts, as Egypt’s Christians are called. Christian homes, stores and places of worship have been marked with large painted crosses. Read more…

The Vocation to Furious Love

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them both furious.” – GK Chesterton

I remember back in the 1980s when I was struggling to discern my vocational path. It was only months after coming to faith and I was consumed with a desire to serve God, but had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was immensely fortunate to have been offered an opportunity to present my conundrums to a wise and exceedingly kind Trappist monk. I can only imagine how this 20 year old college student, brimming with idealistic zeal, must have appeared to him! I remember distinctly saying to him at the end of my personal history, “Okay, so my real question is, should I become a priest, a deacon, a monk or should I marry?”

K.I.S.S.

I wanted a simple, direct and unambiguous answer from this holy guru that would not implicate me in any sort of misty ambiguity, nuanced thinking or protracted discerning struggle. I guess I was really hoping for him to have a mystical locution.

And I’ll never ever forget his bizarre and deadly serious answer to my very clear question: “Yes.”

After a long, monastic-style pause that my kids would call “awkward,” he said this (cobbled together from my journal notes):

Tom, you should be any one of those if you find in it the best way for you to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the whole point of you’re decision. You’re discernment of God’s calling isn’t like an Easter egg hunt, where you’re searching for some secretly hidden answer located outside you, but rather it’s the discovery of what God has already planted within you; into your unique history of pain and joy, into your personality and all your gifts that He has given you as a capacity to love as He created Tom to love as no one else could. And don’t look for the ‘easy way’ since that love God demands will be sacrifice, will always be more about others than about you, since vocation isn’t first of all about your personal fulfillment but about serving God and serving neighbor.

First, you have to live your faith out now and get some history to your faith — it’s so new for you! And as you continue on, look around you at the needs out there that present themselves, look within your soul and come to know what gifts you have to offer; listen to your heart’s movements as you pray and share these all with a trusted guide; and, once you do come clear as to where you are being led, as best you can, freely say yes. Then you will start pushing the plow without looking back. But remember, you have a long way to go; you must work hard on getting your life in order now, a life put together in the light of faith; and you need to practice this in the real world for a few years before you can think of discerning a life’s vocation. Build the foundations first before you try to build the castle.

Of course, at the time I found this all very opaque and unhelpful toward fulfilling my aspiration to be like St. Matthew: “Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” I thought, “I have all this fire in me, I am good to go and you don’t think I’m ready to choose now?” 26 years after this conversation, I am absolutely certain I was not; and life after that day proved beyond a shadow of doubt that his words absolutely true.

In fact, as I prayerfully reflected on this story, I found myself recalling all of the mini bonfires I used to build in our yard when I was young. I always enjoyed burning the small twigs and the straw for quick effect, a big fire, fast and furious, but soon to expire. I knew that the the fire would really only last if I inserted into the roaring blaze some larger logs that would take some time to catch. But if I was patient, attentive and careful, eventually those thick logs would themselves be consumed by the fire and even come to glow red-hot in their deepest core.

During those years of discernment and personal growth, I hated, using Chesterton’s phrase, living between furious opposites; especially between “already, not-yet.” I preferred, and still prefer more often than not, to have all of life’s inner and outer tensions eased, and my life’s path made clear, tension-less and simple. But God always leads otherwise, the God whose covenant sign is to be found in those “arms outstretched between heaven and earth,” as our Eucharistic Prayer so beautifully says it.

At the time I wanted from this holy monk a divine “medium” to manifest my destiny and command obedience, not a counsel to practice and perfect the art of sacrificial love through careful, patient, arduous and freely chosen discernment of God’s gentle lead per crucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light.”

Love: the Way of all Vocations

After we had this discussion, he asked me to read a selection from St. Therese’s Story of a Soul. Though I found it very moving, I still didn’t totally grasp the implications for me. Now, its light is blinding. To this very day I annually thank this monk with a Christmas card for his wisdom and love.

I’ll share a portion of that selection from Therese here, even at the risk of testing your time-constraints for reading my rambles.

To be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me… yet it does not… Without doubt, these three priviliges are indeed my vocation: Carmelite, spouse, and mother. And yet I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus… I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and I wish to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church…

I feel in me the vocation of a priest! With what love, O Jesus, would I bear you in my hands, when at the sound of my words you came down from heaven! With what love would I give you to souls! But alas, just as much as I desire to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and feel the call to imitate him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.

Dreaming of the tortures in which Christians are to share at the time of the Antichrist, I feel my heart thrill, and I would like these tortures to be kept for me… Jesus, Jesus, if I wanted to write all my desires, I would have to take your Book of Life, where the deeds of your saints are recorded: all these deeds I would like to accomplish for you.

At prayer these desires made me suffer a true martydom. I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to seek some relief. The 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell before my eyes. I read, in the first, that not all can be apostles, prophets, and doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot also be at the same time the hand.

The answer was clear, but it did not satisfy my desires, it did not give me peace…. Without being discouraged I continued my reading, and this phrase comforted me: “Earnestly desire the more perfect gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). And the Apostle explains how all gifts, even the most perfect, are nothing without Love… that charity is the excellent waythat leads surely to God. At last I had found rest…. Considering the mystical Body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather, I wanted to recognize myself in all… Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the noblest and most necessary of all the members would not be lacking to her. I understood that the Church has a heart, and that this heart burns with Love. I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!

Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!”

I am a child… It is not riches or glory (not even the glory of Heaven) that this child asks for… No, she asks for Love. She knows but one desire: to love you, Jesus. Glorious deeds are forbidden her; she cannot preach the Gospel or shed her blood… But what does that matter, her brothers work in her place, and she, a little child, stays close to the throne of the King and Queen, and loves for her brothers who are in the combat… But how shall she show her love, since love proves itself by deeds? Well! the little child will strew flowers, she will embalm the royal throne with their fragrance, she will sing with a silver voice the canticle of Love.

Yes, my Beloved, I wish to spend my life thus… I have no other means of proving my love except by strewing flowers, that is to say, letting no little sacrifice pass, no look, no word–profiting by the littlest actions, and doing them out of love. I wish to suffer out of love and to rejoice out of love; thus I shall strew flowers before your throne. I shall not find one without scattering its petals before you… and in strewing my flowers I will sing (can one weep in doing so joyous an action?) I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.

B16′s Final Words

Here are excerpts from his last address as pope yesterday to more than 150,000 people in St Peter’s Square, translated by Reuters from Italian:

“I feel I am carrying all of you with me in prayer … gathering together every meeting, every trip, every pastoral visit. I gather everything and everyone in prayer to entrust them to the Lord, because we have full knowledge of his will in every wisdom and spiritual knowledge, and so that we can behave in a manner worthy of him and his love, so that every good work bears fruit.”

“There were moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy … there were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.”

“I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and rarity but with a profound serenity of spirit”.

“In these last few months I felt that my strength had diminished, and I asked God earnestly, in prayer, to enlighten me to make the best decision, not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and its newness, but with a deep serenity of the spirit. To love the Church also means having the courage to make difficult choices, painful choices, always putting the good of the Church before our good.”

“I am not returning to private life, a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I am not coming down from the cross, but remaining in a new way before the crucified Lord. I don’t have the power to govern the Church anymore, but in prayerful service, I remain, so to speak, in the yard of St. Peter”

“I will continue to follow the path of the Church with prayer and reflection … I ask you to remember me to God, and above all to pray for the cardinals, called to such a weighty task, and for the new successor of the apostle Peter. May the Lord accompany him with light and the force of his spirit”.

“The decision I have made, after much prayer, is the fruit of a serene trust in God’s will and a deep love of Christ’s Church. I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new Pope. In union with Mary and all the saints, let us entrust ourselves in faith and hope to God, who continues to watch over our lives and to guide the journey of the Church and our world along the paths of history.”