Don’t flee, free the world

[re-post from 2014]

Early in my return to the practice of the Faith, I was defined by a genre of spiritual literature that privileged, in one way or another, the monastic path of ‘renunciation of the world’ as the most radical Christian way of perfection. What’s called in Latin the fuga mundi, “flight from the world,” or the contemptus mundi, “contempt for the world.” The language of that tradition is pithily expressed by Thomas a Kempis, “This is the highest wisdom: to despise the world and to aspire to the kingdom of Heaven.”

The vast majority of spiritual literature in the Catholic tradition was written by those dedicated to some version of this flight, e.g. nuns, monks, clerics, or laity who resembled them. This literature valorized the life of otherworldly contemplation and celibate life, privileged dedication to religious activities over secular ones, and possessed a marked ambivalence — sometimes antipathy — toward non-religious realities like secular culture and professions, politics, money, possessions, marriage and family life, and so on. In other words, all the things the vast majority of the lay faithful must dedicate their best energies and finest resources toward if they are to build and sustain human civilization.

I often thought, if the secular world necessarily becomes spiritually insipid for laity who seek spiritual greatness, then the leaven of the Gospel will never enter the narthex of the world and will forever remain locked in the nave of the Church. If this is our only choice, Flannery O’Connor is right:

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head.

While these world-renouncing spiritual emphases are essential for maintaining the integrity and beauty of monastic or clerical life, they are disastrous for those who are called by God to make the world, the secular, the temporal, the non-celibate their primary life focus, the soul of their spiritual life, and their core path to perfection in holiness. Such an insoluble either-or tension over time will produce unhealthy responses like compartmentalizing religious faith and secular life, withdrawal from real world contexts into religious enclaves, living in constant guilt and frustration, or a simple falling away from the faith into an irreligious world where the tensions have all been relieved. Even if falsely.

With this in mind, I recall well the evening in 1997 when I first (re)read paragraph #31 of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, and the cognitive dissonance it elicited. I am sure I had read it before in my graduate theological studies, but that evening it struck me like a Damascus Road epiphany. After reading it, I thought, “Now where can I find a new spiritual literature that can serve those of us called not to flee the world, but to love it and live it? Who are called not to be ambivalent or have contempt for the world, but to inhabit and consecrate it?”

This quest has been my journey ever since.


What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius. It is true that those in Holy Orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, Religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes.

But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.

In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

Let us reason together

Rabbis arguing.

[re-posting from 2017]

Truth happens in the course of dialogue. There is always a temptation to allow our answers to bring to an end the process of searching, as if the topic of the conversation was a problem that has now been solved. But when a fresh question arrives, the unexhausted depths of mystery show through once more. — Tomáš Halík

My philosophy professor of 25+ years ago, who was a Catholic, used to invite students to his home once a month for a debate experience. He wanted those of us interested to learn the art of the “disputation” in real time. He would bait us with a loaded question, usually a morally dicey situation, and let us go. At the end, he would critique each of us and offer insights.

One of those evenings, he said something to us that really rocked my narrow world. A student told him how hard it was to get into arguments with people who rejected Catholic teaching. He said that because we Catholics claim to have the fullness of Truth, he began with the assumption that they are wrong and so lost all patience with them. I recorded in my notes that the professor, among many other things, said these things in response. Of course, all of this is in Nealese, but hopefully caught the essence of his wisdom.

…at the end of a good argument, no one should ever say, ‘I won’ or ‘You win.’ Each should say, ‘Let us rejoice, truth has more fully appeared!’ … even if Catholics say the Church holds the fullness of Truth, no one person in that Church ever possesses or embodies or understands that fullness entirely. This is what Augustine was after when he said, Si comprehendis, non est Deus, “If you comprehend, it’s not God.” Christ alone is the fullness of Truth, the Church is forever unfolding that fullness; and each member more or less retains a fragment of that whole.

… Truth isn’t a possession or a weapon, it’s the goal of a common quest. Truth confronts us, seizes us, encounters us, calls us, judges us. Truth always eludes full possession, is always partial, tending toward more, is always beyond. And more perfect reception of truth always demands dialogue, disagreement, debate and discussion to be discovered. The debates in Acts 15 are the Church at her finest, achieving unity in truth through a holy brawl.

… even God, when He came down to reason with us in a fully human form, as a man only came to the full articulation of truth after years and years of questioning, debating, discussing, disagreeing, arguing. Truth Himself, when He became flesh, had to grow in wisdom through these human methods, and only came to truth with us. With Mary and Joseph, with his local rabbi, the scholars of the law, disciples, regular people who asked him questions, argued with him or gave Him ideas for His teaching. Jesus never hid in an ideological ghetto, He set out into every Jewish or Gentile sect — even debating Satan. So the Church must follow His lead to receive His truth.

… if you can first agree with your conversationalist, in humility, that you’re both seeking truth in the matter at hand, you can bridge the distance between you; let go of defensiveness; see the other as a necessary partner on this quest. Not simply, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ Then you get nowhere. It seems God has set the whole pursuit of truth up to force us to draw together closer. We just can’t get to it without relating to each other, or to God. And especially relating to people we find disagreeable. Dialogue, which means ‘to think through’ someone else, is the only path to Reality. Truth and love need each other.

… and every debate, disagreement, argument that ends is always a perfect beginning for a new quest. No one really seeking truth says, “I’ve got it!’ They say, ‘A little closer!’ Every good idea begins as a heresy seeking orthodoxy, as a partial seeing, as a new departure from a portion toward the whole. Learn to love to learn, to debate, to disagree, to confess new insights with others, and to harbor no ill feelings. If you follow the fair-play rules, you’ll never leave such an exchange bitter or defensive or angry. Truth seeking requires loads of virtue, like patience, humility, magnanimity, charity, courage. And good humor.

… and be sure to love throughout it all. Truth without love is crushing tyranny, and love without truth is alienating anarchy.

This profoundly shaped my worldview.

“I can suffer”

Jesus reaching down from the Cross to embrace St. Francis of Assisi

I changed my mind, I had to write this out and share.

I just had a remarkable conversation with a woman, whose identity I will not reveal, though she gave me permission to share her insight.

Her insight is simple, and so powerful in a way simplicity alone can be. However, most of its power cannot be written. She is powerful, and her life and witness are the reality, not the words. As I read what I wrote below, it betrays that reality. St. John of the Cross said that as we move closer to divine mystery, we must progressively shift our manner of expression from prose to poetry to stammering to silence. Maybe one day I will write a poem on her.

We were talking about her many life challenges. Many. This woman has walked through the dark valley. She also has a deep and — for lack of a better word — gritty faith in Jesus. She relates to Him in prayer very naturally as she walks through her day, effusing, yelling, crying, begging or “laughing with” Him. She’s not flowery or sweet in her language or temperament, and not particularly ‘nice,’ as the word is used today. But she is, in my judgment, deeply sanctified. Divine fire has penetrated way down into the marrow of her bones.

Okay, so here’s the thing she said that really struck me. I will do my best to do it justice.

I’ve always struggled with trying to be like Jesus, you know kind, gentle, forgiving, patient. I’m no Thérèse. Just about everything Jesus commands, I fail. Except maybe humility, by default.

But I can suffer. Life has given me that in spades. Yup, I suffer, maybe mostly simply by my being me. [we laughed]

So here’s the coolest thing. One day I had an epiphany, when I was feeling way down in the dumps, as I read a meditation from Magnificat. It said, “Christ has opened his suffering to man.” I had never heard that before. I don’t really know why, but those words leapt off the page and unlocked everything for me, untied all the knots. And I suddenly saw: This was my way in.

I told Him, “That I can do, Jesus. There’s where I can imitate you.” You know? I thought, I can be intimate with Him because He suffered everything I do, and made that a door into Him. My door, His door, always open for free entry. Doesn’t that blow your mind?

So when I start to despair over whatever, which is every day, I run and hide there. In His Passion. It really sounds crazy, right? But I’m telling you with God as my witness, I never feel closer to Him than when I suffer. Then there’s just no walls left. The walls fall and He just walks right in…

St. John Paul II said what she says in his exhortation on suffering, Salvifici doloris. And as I have known her long enough to see its truth alive in her, I can say she is what he says:

In one who suffers God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self.

“At the Offertory, therefore…”

On Friday, a seminarian I know texted me a photo of a page from Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s A Priest is Not His Own, and said beneath it, “I thought you’d like that.”

My God yes.

Sheen was describing to priests, as celebrants of the Mass, the meaning of the Offertory. The offering of gifts of bread, wine and alms — “my sacrifice and yours.” How eloquently he expressed the mystery of a ritual action that is reduced, in most people’s minds, to fishing for money or dropping envelopes in the basket. Or maybe checking the watch to where we stand at Half Time.

Do the Faithful have any idea what they are really transacting in? Are saying “Amen” to? Giving over? Such ignorance profoundly weakens the Offering’s potential effect to change lives and transform the world. Literally. Annie Dillard captured my sentiments in a passage I seem to quote every other week:

Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

It’s why I get concerned when I see programs or schemes that over-focus on what people should “get out of Mass” by reducing Mass-consumption to emotional satisfaction or learning outcomes. By doing this, we strip Liturgy of its vast, mysterious, transcendent and terrifying power. The late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh makes this point:

Although the liturgy does indeed ‘teach,’ it teaches as any other ritual does – experientially, non-discursively, richly, ambiguously, and elementally. Liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.

Okay, so here’s a nutty stream-of-consciousness scenario that runs through my head as I write:

Jerry: “Hey, what did you get out of Mass today, Tom?”

Tom: “Oh, well, hmm, let me think. Well, you know when they pass the collection plate around and then bring the gifts up?”

Jerry: “Sure, what about it? Did you realize you had an empty wallet when the basket came by?”

Tom: “Ha! No, well, it was a little different. I found myself handing over to God’s uncreated Fire my body and soul; all of my prayers, works, joys and sufferings; my livelihood; my sins and failings; my marriage and family and friends, even strangers and enemies; the living and the dead; angels and demons; all of time and space. I mean, the whole freakin’ universe! But that was a little scary, because I realized I was giving absolutely everything back, handing it all over completely to God’s control and will. It was like saying, Okay, it’s all yours now. All of it. Dispose of it wholly according to your will. I was unsettled at what I was agreeing to.

Jerry: “Yikes.”

Tom: “Yeah, well, and after I did all of that…oh, wait, I forgot. As I handed all this over, it all Somehow got tangled up with everyone-from-everywhere else’s Stuff. I was like, ‘Wait, that’s my Stuff, not theirs!’ But He wouldn’t listen.

“Okay, so then all that Stuff got loaded onto the Altar, and then got totally Wrecked into the bread and wine we’d brought up, by those words, “This is my…given up.” Those are hard words to hear, but it was too late. Then the eternal Spirit fell Down on all of it, like free-falling Fire, and burned it Up into the Heart of the risen Body of Jesus. It was all like a raging Furnace coming out of the now-Ruined Bread and Wine. I could hardly breathe.

“Then Jesus, Master Craftsman that He is, started building, out of all of our tangled-up Burning Stuff, a whole new section of the New Creation. Which, I heard said, never ever passes away. And it was amazing, He built it up in a way I never would have imagined doing. Incredibly beautiful, but very strangely new. Everything.

“Okay, then Jesus, after Building all this at His Altar on High, carried this whole New World He’d made back Down toward us, borne on the music of the fiery Spirit. Then He, Somehow in that Ruined Bread and Wine, came wildly running over toward us out of the sanctuary. But here’s the wildest thing of all. He totally Ruined me by commanding me: “Eat, drink.” Eat, drink fire? Unworthy me? Terrifying! But He gave me courage. And now, my God …. I have eternal life.

“I was undone. Speechless. Unable to move. It was all super-intense, more Real than reality. And then I was totally overwhelmed with a gratitude I’ve never felt before. Ever before.

Jerry: “That’s all?”

Tom: “Oh no! There’s so much more. But that’s what comes to mind. Oh no, wait, I forgot! The priest said something at the end, like ‘Go! Be Sent!’ But when I looked up at him, he wasn’t there, only Christ, but terrifying in Majesty. He was commanding me: ‘Go! But this time, to Ruin our ruined world,’ just like I’d seen done at Mass. And then He said, ‘bring those Ruined ruins back to Me, to do this all again next week.’

“I mean, what?

Oh man, I ran! I’ve been running ever since. I just can’t stop. It’s why I’m totally out of breath now and stammering…”

Jerry: “Whoa.”

Tom: “Yeah, I know. Who knew?………………”

Do you love yourself?

“Thirst for life … I try to be excited about things that are mundane, because every day should be special.” — Girl in the Video

Someone asked me last week a question that made me squirm: “What do you love most about yourself?” After the awkward bout with how to answer that question, I thought of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “degrees of love” that culminate in “love of self for God’s sake” as the highest form of love possible.

In this stage of psycho-spiritual maturity, you see yourself as lovable because you know you are infinitely loved, and from that unshakable ground you can serenely love even the most bitter hater with the same love with which you are loved. You cease requiring everyone’s approval and validation in order to accept yourself, no longer operating out of compulsively driven needs but out of the freedom of the children of God — because you see yourself, others, the world as God sees.

This was Jesus. He said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). Through the grace that comes from faith, Jesus shares with us His same capacity for love that is, literally, super-natural, above our animal nature’s power to achieve on its own. The whole goal of the spiritual life, the end game of the Incarnation, is to let the Father love us. From that fountainhead, all else flows.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us — 1 John 4:10

Damn that’s hard. But the alternatives suck. When we drop our ultimacy anchor into anything or anyone other than divine love, and lose sight of who (and whose) we really are, we sink into self-hatred, into a life of self-absorbed superficiality, distraction or addiction to kill the pain of our loss. And we pass on the pain.

Okay, so what do I love most about myself? As I look, I see and fall in love with the wild array of beauties that attend my being human in the divine image; my being a bearer of charisms whose reach is far beyond me; my carrying the grace of the indwelling Trinity; my receiving in each moment a vocation to be one with Patti and father to our children; my existing as the object of God’s pazzo d’amore, “mad love”; my delighting in rain, the sea, laughter, friendship, music, learning, fishing, napping, gardening, biking, birdwatching, writing; in my being called to serve and not be served. And in the insane truth that God mercys me in my wretched state.

Ah! There’s so much more!

If I count them, they are more than the sand;
at the end I am still at your side. – Psalm 139:18

So for me it’s really impossible to whittle it all down to one thing, or rank them. But I must say my knee-jerk that day was much the same as the girl I quoted above: I love that I “thirst for life…I try to be excited about things that are mundane, because every day should be special.” I love that I so love this world.

What’s yours?

Enveloped by Truth


To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all. Each one of us needs to work at searching for truth, not be afraid of it. We need to strive to live in truth, because the truth sets us free, even if it means living in loneliness and anguish at certain moments. Perhaps this search for truth is a process of letting ourselves be enfolded in truth rather than possessing truth, as if it were an object that we could possess, that we could use against others. ~Jean Vanier

Everyone should have in their life someone who knows them exceedingly well and who will be brutally honest with them, tell them the unvarnished truth. Hiding from honesty stunts growth. My grandfather wrote me once, “keep your friends close and your critics closer.” In other words, he said, “you must be open at all times to different viewpoints if greatness is your aim.” “But,” he added, “your best critics are the ones who love you, who have your best interests at heart.”

St. Paul in Ephesians 4:15 would agree:

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

Grow up. This is what my wife said to me in the early years of our marriage, when I wanted to quit a job because it was not exactly what I wanted. “It’s not about what you want, but what your family needs.” That moment was for me a kind of revolution. Patti has the charism of truth, for those interested in truth. She never lies, never speaks ill of others behind their backs. Never. Even if she is honest in her opinions about others, she’s fair and factual.

But greatest of all to me, out of her mouth comes a double-edged sword that rises from her heart and cuts into mine. I have told her again and again, it’s her most divine gift to me and it has saved me from myself many times. The stories I could recount are countless.

I have told the story here before about the day I decided to quit my PhD program, the same day that 9 months of intensive writing had been trashed by a member of my dissertation committee: “Tom, delete and re-write. It’s a piece of shit.” I told Patti when I got home, “I’m done.” She grabbed my tie, pulled my face close to hers, looked me in the eye and said:

You are not quitting. I’ve given you four years away from our family to work on this degree. It’s not going to waste. And besides, you were made for this. You know that. And … YOU were the one who chose John of the Cross as your topic, so really now, what did you expect?

At that moment, I really and truly received the most intense infusion of grace, a little Pentecost, giving me courage that lasted to the very end of my degree work. In that moment, truth enveloped me in a liberating judgment, love emboldened me, and grace rushed into my core at my bride’s word. Here, and in all real friendships, Proverbs 27:17 obtains, “Iron sharpens iron, and one [spouse] sharpens another.”

At least for those who really want an answer to the question, “What is truth?”