Fathers walking with us

Sacramental Confession. pravmir.com

[My last repost in this series and last post till next weekend — always a joy to share faith here and receive the depth of comments that stream in. Godspeed!]

Any religion concerned about the souls of people and not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economics that strangle them and the social conditions that imprison them is a molly coddle religion awaiting burial. — Martin Luther King

Between the years 2000 and 2001, I came to know a priest who was one of the most human people I have ever known. If I had to use one word to describe what stood out most in him, it would be “accessible.” Which is really another way of describing the quality of his fatherly heart. He was the kind of person everyone felt comfortable around. I grew quite close to him the time I was there and came to deeply appreciate his model of servant-leadership. He would always say that managing the administrative side of parish life was not his strong suit, but that he knew the best way to compensate for this deficit was to gather around him people who were good at it. Which, I said to him, was a sign to me that he was good at administration!

I was especially moved by his extreme generosity. Whenever people would give him money, gift cards to restaurants, food, he would almost always find a way to give it away to someone he knew would benefit from it. And very often he would find a way to do it anonymously, almost making a game out of it (which delighted him). His business manager shared with me confidentially that this priest would have him identify needy families in the parish and then anonymously pay for their utility bill out of the priest’s own private income.

He walked the streets of his parish territory daily for exercise, praying a rosary and stopping to chat with beggars and vagrants to see what their needs were. He was always in communication with Catholic Charities to see what could be done to give them a hand up, “and not just a hand out,” as he would say.

During that time, Patti and I were going through a very tense period regarding my decision to leave my job, as she and I did not see eye to eye. It was one of the most difficult times in our marriage. He took a long walk with me one day to help me process the situation, pray with me and give me wisdom. At the end of the walk, he prayed over me and then handed me a $100 bill, saying, “take her out to dinner and please don’t say it came from me.” I was overcome with emotion. He said, “This is why God called me to celibacy, so I can be freed up to do things like this; to be free for you and Patti. I’m alone so that I can be with you. And with them [pointing to the people on the streets].”

That dinner conversation Patti and I had was a breakthrough for us, and I am convinced that his act of sacrificial love had entered our marriage that day and opened between us a space of grace and freedom. That is the paternal genius of ministerial priesthood when it’s placed in service to marriage and family life. To the lonely and alone.

He made, makes me want to be great.

Thank you God for those men you call to be priests, giving their lives for us as fathers walking with us.

The Cross: Critique of the Curse

Bl Miguel Pro awaiting execution

[repost 2015]

I love the psalms. They teach us the meaning of prayer as nothing else does, inspired by the Spirit and written in the blood, sweat and tears of the sons and daughters of Abraham. The psalms are what Christians means by prayer, and so they populate and animate all of our liturgies and give basic shape to all of our prayerful devotions. As a rabbi I once knew in Hartford taught me, “When a Jew is asked, ‘What does it mean to pray?’ he always answers, ‘Psalms.'” The Catechism #2584 calls the psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”

Even the Our Father, the only prayer Jesus taught His disciples, is really nothing more than, as my Scripture professor in grad school once said, “the pocket-sized Jewish prayer for uneducated and educated alike; a peasant’s psalter. 150 psalms in 7 petitions.” That blew. my. mind. In other words, the Our Father has compressed into it all the major themes of the psalms, including trust, adoration, praise, submission, contrition, lamentation, supplication. Notably missing, though, are the curse psalms. Think here, for example, of Psalm 109:6-17, prayed by the psalmist against his enemy:

Appoint a wicked man as his judge;
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged let him come out condemned;
let his prayer be considered as sin.

Let the days of his life be few;
let another man take his office.
Let his children be fatherless orphans
and his wife become a widow.

Let his children be wanderers and beggars
driven from the ruins of their home.
Let the creditor seize all his goods;
let strangers take the fruit of his work.

Let no one show him any mercy
nor pity his fatherless children.
Let all his sons be destroyed
and with them their names be blotted out.

Let his father’s guilt be remembered,
his mother’s be retained.
Let it always stand before the Lord,
that their memory be cut off from the earth.

For he did not think of showing mercy
but pursed the poor and the needy,
hounding the wretched to death.
He loved cursing; let curses fall upon him.
He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by.

An absolutely understandable human response to injustice. But in the Our Father, Jesus offers a stinging critique of the curse psalms not only by omitting their dark imprecations, but by adding a single, simple and stunning line that has no exact analogue in all of the Old Testament. As Luke 11:4 has it, “forgive us our sins [inasmuch as also] we forgive those in debt to us.” He knew very well that this would have caught the attention of His hearers, and in Matthew’s version (6:14-15) concludes this new prayer with a coda that holds in stark relief what is new:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Though this manner of expression is new, Jesus’ critique of the Old Testament tradition of cursing enemies draws on another Israelite tradition, found in its most dramatic form in the book of Jonah. Recall that Jonah, to his chagrin, is commanded by God to enter the heart of enemy territory — Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian empire which had utterly devastated the northern tribes of Israel — and invoke God’s mercy on the Assyrians by calling them to repentance before God’s impending judgment. Of course, Jonah famously rejects this call and flees, only to find himself swallowed up by a fish and spewed back on mission, still filled with resentment and anger at God.

Jesus makes it clear (Matt. 12:40f) that this prophetic tale is a (comedic) prefigurement of His own willing and passionate pursuit of us, His enemy (Rom. 5:10), into the kingdom of darkness where He is swallowed up by death and ‘spewed out’ by the Father (Rom. 6:4) to bring to the City of Man God’s unsparing mercy. On the Cross, Jesus became the object of every curse, transforming them into blessings, drinking the poison of sin to become for us the antidote that pardons every sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13-14).

In all this, Jesus sets the pattern for Christian life to lived behind enemy lines. After reconciling us with Himself, He sends us out on mission every day into our mildly or terrifyingly hostile environments to proclaim divine mercy by word, by prayer, by deed. By every means. In Baptism, and all the Sacraments, we are joined to the New Jonah, filled and empowered with God’s judgment of mercy, commanded to expend it on the undeserving, the unworthy, the unwilling, the most repulsive and repellent among those we encounter. To us, Jesus says,

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. — Luke 6:27-36

I will end with a visual reflection on forgiveness and a magnificent sung presentation of the Our Father in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, to Pope Francis during his visit to the nation of Georgia. Our. Faith. Is. Awe. Inspiring.

Matter of Trust

Sonny (Robert Duvall) yelling at God in “The Apostle.”

[Repost 2015, with Pope Francis quote added]

This story is shared with permission.

God likes to argue with us. Someone tells me: ‘But, Father, many times when I go to pray, I get angry with the Lord…’ But this also is prayer! He likes when you get angry and say what you feel to His face, because He’s a Father!          — Pope Francis

A woman in Arizona wrote me an email after reading something I had written. She shared with me her own journey to faith, as well as her story of childhood abuse. She had become Catholic a number of years ago, which, she said, sped her along the path of healing, forgiveness and the affirmation of her own dignity and worth. But, she told me, she still struggled mightily with a certain dimension of forgiveness. In her words, “I don’t know if this is kosher to say or not but I struggle to forgive God for letting all that happen to me. Sometimes I feel divided inside with a mind convinced of my faith but with my feelings filled with rage. My husband calls me a house divided. He’s right.”

While I encouraged her to seek spiritual counsel with a priest or spiritual guide, I also encouraged her (as I do often to people struggling with inner darkness) to bring this directly to God in prayer. I emailed her, “Share with Him your rage. Not to spite Him but to expose to Him the reality that is you. Go deep.” In fact, I encouraged her to bring this to the Adoration Chapel she said her parish had, “Because this issue needs to not stay separate from the most sacred space where you encounter God as a Catholic, i.e. the Eucharist.”

I told her about the Missionary of Charity nun who offered this same advice to a woman who had suffered 12 years of abuse on the streets as a prostitute, and who lived with the Sisters after being rescued. The woman was ready to become Catholic, except for the fact that she still could not reconcile the belief in God’s love with God’s silence those 12 years she suffered terrible injustices. This rescued prostitute, at the advice of the nun, spent nearly 3 hours in the Chapel weeping and asking God, “Why? Why?” She came out after her time of prayer and simply said, “Okay, I’m ready to be baptized.”

After weeks of avoiding the idea, the Arizona woman’s husband convinced her it was important for her to make this time happen. So she signed up for a certain open hour of adoration, but week after week found someone else there with her. She dared not pray so honestly with some else there, for fear of what might happen. She said she was secretly relieved each time there was someone there, as it gave her an excuse to delay longer. But one week, she was alone in the chapel. She began to ready herself for prayer, and someone walked in. Just as she was ready to give up, the man got a call and stepped out of the Chapel. So, she said, “I just dove right into the deep end. I whispered at first then spoke louder and then shouted. I cried like a baby. I think the poor man didn’t dare come back in.”

After her hour was over, she said, “I felt calm purged and my feeling was exactly the opposite of what I had feared. I feared God’s anger at my own anger but I felt only loved. No great revelations to answer specific questions why these bad things happened but I knew without a doubt I was loved to the core which was worth so much more than a thousand answers. Forgiveness suddenly seemed to be the wrong word. More like trust. In fact all I could think of was the Billy Joel song Matter of Trust. Listen to it and you’ll get what I mean.”

Festschrift for Ashley

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter:
[she] that has found one has found a treasure.
There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend,
and no scales can measure [her] excellence.
A faithful friend is an elixir of life;
and those who fear the Lord will find [her]. — Sirach 6:14-16

“One can make a rather easy transition from human friendships to friendship with God himself” — Aelred of Rievaulx

I’d like to honor Ashley today. She is, of course, lead singer in the indy cover band, Ashley and Maria (or Mashley, as I call them), whose work I have featured here for the last 2 years. She’s a remarkable young woman. My daughter Maria became friends with Ashley soon after we arrived in New Orleans in 2012, and it was not long before they stitched together their unique melodies into a new and fresh harmony.

After my first son was born, an older gentleman gave me this advice on raising children well, “If you cultivate in your children a love for good books, good music, good friends, along with your good marriage, you’ll give them a rock solid foundation.” What’s become clear over the 21 years since then is this: while my wife and I have had a good amount of say over the books, music and our marriage, it’s friendships that contain the real uncertainty variable.

Friendship is immensely powerful, for good or for ill. Our greatest goal in this regard over the years has been to instill in our children standards of good judgment that would help them sift the wheat from the chaff and choose people of character for friends. And we prayed (and still pray) each of our children would find and maintain good, faithful and worthy friends. Without exception, we believe that our children have each chosen well.

Ashley is an especially exceptional example of such a friendship. She, like Maria, is filled with joie de vivre. She’s a normal teenager, but not ordinary. She stands out. She is kind and creative, hip, deeply faith-filled, willing to go the extra mile, sensitive to beauty and attentive to others’ suffering. She has moral integrity and — key! — her parents love her enough to hold her to high standards. Her parents rock.

And Ashley longs to know God. When I was in high school, I would not have had the foggiest idea what that meant. But she does, and it’s a way of life she shares with Maria; and with anyone who comes close to her. In fact, Ashley and Maria’s friendship reminds me of the friendship between Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great, which Gregory described in his homily at Basil’s funeral. I will substitute “music” for “philosophy”:

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of [music]. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as [her] own. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

So that’s my take, but don’t just believe me. Let me allow 6 of her friends to weigh in:

Ashley keeps her cool in everything she does and is able to see things from a long term perspective.
Ashley never lets anything bother her, and she does everything with love.
Ashley has a good heart and selflessly puts others’ needs above her own.
Ashley is level headed in tough situations and always just wants what is best for her friends
Ashley has the amazing and unique ability to place all of her needs aside when she sees someone she cares about in pain.
Ashley would do absolutely anything to protect the people she loves, and that selflessness reminds me a lot of Jesus.

Ashley, you’re loved by Mrs. Patti and me. You have an awesome family, extraordinary gifts, great friends and a bright future in God’s plan. And you are a great friend. We look forward to watching you bloom with even greater beauty in the Garden of God. Remember, “a dark world waits for a splash of the sun.” For you to sing a new song with your life.

Let me leave you with two of my favorite Mashley music videos:

It’s All About You

Burn this Face in my heart, O Lord, with your loving Light!

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. — Phil. 2:3

Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the harshest;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious,
but to lowest and most despised. – St. John of the Cross

My first spiritual director, who introduced me to St. John of the Cross, offered me a view of Christian asceticism that deeply impacted the way I approached the question of self-denial — so starkly described by St John. Asceticism is the manner in which one exercises discipline in service to achieving some excellence, with Christian excellence being defined by Jesus’ commandment of love. I’ve written about my director’s take on this many times here. He drilled into me over and over that the entire purpose of all ascetical practice is to make me more capable of being other-focused, which is the soul of love. In St. John fashion, he loved to say that the premier sign of holiness is not spiritual feelings or mystical visions or prophetic words of knowledge or effusive pious-speak. He loved to quote Matthew 7:21-23 on this:

Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

The premier sign of holiness is when you find your thoughts spontaneously populated more with concern for the well-being of others than with thoughts of your own well-being. Not a concern born of a low sense of self-worth, self-hatred or co-dependency, as these all are contrary to the genuine nature of love; and are all subtly ego-centered. When you can very naturally see another’s well-being and God’s glory as coterminous, and see that another’s well-being is integral to your own, divine charity has made a home in you.

The most effective approach to growing in this posture, he said, is to litter your whole day with micro-acts of hidden self-denial that put St John’s above prescription into practice. Quietly, subtly, creatively put others first. Such a life makes flammable material for your prayer life, as the Spirit is wildly attracted to spaces emptied out by self-emptying love. In fact, he said, these secret acts of self-denial are each like a mighty cry to Heaven calling down the Holy Spirit in power to renew the face of the earth and burn into it the Face of Christ.

He also told me that he found the most fruitful of all acts of self-denial is found in controlling the tongue and in listening to others more than you speak. Especially difficult, tedious, irritating others. “And when you do speak,” he added, “remember that in the next life all that you say will be made known to all creation in the presence of God [Luke 12:3, Matt. 12:36, 2 Cor. 5:10]. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” He made me memorize Ephesians 4:29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building others up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

God in search of God

Father of the prodigal son. stmarklincoln.org

[This meditation flashed into my mind as I sat at the coffee shop watching people come and go, sitting at tables around me exchanging words, gestures, laughter, silences. It seemed to me everyone was engaged in a pursuit of the other, trying to get into them and, through them, into themselves. I left it all really raw and did not try to translate it into normal language. Sorry in advance!]

Who knows, perhaps God is simply the search for God. – Nikos Kazantzakis

In turn, the gulf between an infinite God and finite creatures is not a stopping-point for human knowledge of God, but an open field of action, of eternal movement and self-realization. — Ekkehard Mühlenberg

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi I knew in Hartford back in 1988-89 said something to me that captured my imagination, as he exposed me to the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He said something to this effect, “By bringing into history the idea of a limitless God who is not part of the finite world, or bound by its laws, but rather transcends it and is the primal Originator of the world and its laws, Judaism introduced the idea of faith. Faith acknowledges that God, as the Cause preceding all existence, is hidden in His transcendence and so must be searched for; can only be known indirectly and mediately and never directly and immediately. Faith also asserts that God, who infinitely transcends His creation as its Source, can only be known at His own initiative, by freely choosing to reveal Himself as He did at Mount Sinai. Faith sets man on a journey that, the seeker quickly discovers, is in fact a response to the journeying of a God in search of man. But what is most remarkable is that when God at last finds man, and man God, it is really God encountering Himself as He finds His image stamped into creation. Man’s greatness is being the locus of this ecstatic discovery.”

The whole meaning of created existence is a participation in God’s search for God, which is why man, caught in the midst of this eternal pursuit, is forever restless, seeking, searching, questing.

Wow.

This line of thought set me to thinking about the Trinity, a God who is three Persons, each of whom only knows Himself through the Other Persons, who are also God. And in the Incarnation — God becoming man — God seeks to know and love Himself in what He has created. And in doing so, gives the creature a share in that love. The Father sends the Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, into history to restore in man the beauty of the divine image, seeking out what is lost and bringing all back to the Father. Then, with all restored, the Father can see and love in us what He sees and loves in His Son. The Father knows the Son in and through us. The Son, exiled in time from the Father by the Father, searches for the Father even as the Father searches for the Son — down into the very depths of hell. This is really the story of the Prodigal Son, in which both father and son search for each other.

This search is the essence of love, which is always defined by seeking the good of the other, by an endless running after. For the beloved whom we seek can never be fully possessed, but always must be sought. Forever.

This blows my mind.

Celebrate the Healing of the World: Dance!

[the posts this week are old re-posts so hopefully new for most readers]

It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theater, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways. ― N.T. Wright

My wife and I were invited last weekend to a ball by one of the members of her choir. She wore a lovely yellow dress, I rented a tuxedo. I’m not a dancer, she is. I don’t have soul in my bones, she does. I can’t relax easily in a large crowd of unfamiliar people (about 300), she can. The beauty of that difference is that I learn from her and stretch. I did.

In fact, after several hours of an intoxicating mix of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues, Motown and Swing music — all live — I found myself losing my New England puritan inhibitions and dancing with abandon. Or more accurately, found myself succumbing to Patti’s choreographic allure, her boogieing elixir. Which, of course, is no indicator of exactly what I looked like doing it. Hence, the importance of losing my (rational) inhibitions and ceasing to care.

On the way home we had a wonderful conversation and were able to broach a contentious subject that is usually very difficult for us to discuss, bringing it to a new resolve. I said to her, “Wow, that was an amazing grace.” She said, “Yes, it is! I really believe dancing together helps us to love together better. It’s why I always tell you I want to dance and ask you to make date opportunities for us to do that. Do you remember that I always asked couples who argued all the time to do something strenuously physical together? And I’d say, not sex guys. That helped them burn out the aggression and practice non-verbal communication and intimacy. And it releases all kinds of good hormones that open up new bio-chemical channels of communication.” My wife was a licenced social work counselor at Catholic Charities from the late 1980’s to the mid 90’s. I said, “Man, that gives a whole new meaning to two becoming one flesh!”

It’s nice to be married to a therapist.

As I thought about it, it also made new sense out of the importance of liturgical worship being very physical and communal, so you get to ritually practice unity with the Catholic motley crew in praising God and acting in harmony before you exit the church to do faith together in the world.

Patti and I over the years have made it a habit to alternately walk together, play racquetball together, workout together and dance together. Without exception, the time spent doing those things always clears the air between us and leaves us better than we began. To us it’s obvious now that if your only bodily intimacy is sex, sex will become a problem as it cannot bear that much weight.

So men I encourage you, diversify the artful ways you get physical with your wives — and the more you make of it an art, intentionally and creatively putting effort into it, the more beautiful she will feel.