“O Mad lover!” — St. Catherine of Siena, to God

“Love transforms one into what one loves.” — St. Catherine of Siena

On St. Catherine’s feast I could think of nothing better than to talk about love, and give it some real content.

I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. There is a woman I know who has a special needs child, now in his 30’s. He has quite a number of serious disabilities, but she has never once in all the 30+ years I have known her complained about the challenges he brings into her life. And they are many. One specific issue her son deals with is chronic insomnia, two to three times a month, which keeps him awake for three-night stretches. And he is terrified of being alone at night. So she stays up with him for all of those nights for each stretch, whenever they happen; at times convenient, and not convenient.

Every month. It’s just astonishing. And because she works during the day, she can’t nap.

She’s been doing this for about 28 years at this point.

Once I praised her for her selfless dedication in these stretches. She immediately rebuffed my compliment and said,

No, he’s the champ. Not me. He’s the one who suffers. I just get to walk with him. And I also need to say that I believe if I’m ever saved, you know, ever get to heaven, it’ll be because of him. He taught me how to love. Before he came into my world I was so self-centered, but never realized it. He pulled me out of myself and taught me to love. And he is pure love. A canonized saint in your house. Not bad.

Salvation, the God-given and neighbor-driven gift of the capacity to love. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange once said that the premier sign of holiness is when your thoughts are populated more with considerations of the welfare of others than your own welfare. Vatican II defined holiness as the “perfection of charity,” with “charity” being code language in theology for “loving with the same love with which God loved us in Christ hanging from the cross.” And the Gospels are clear: on the cross Jesus was all about everyone else.

My spiritual director once said to me in Confession, after Lent was over (and he gave me a brutal Lenten penance):

You’ll know your growing in holiness when you naturally seek out unpleasant people because you believe in your bones they have the greater claim on your love. And then when you do it all with cheer, without complaint, you’ll know you’ve reached the highest heights. Though on second thought you probably won’t know that then, because when you arrive that far you’ve finally forgotten about yourself.

Luke 6:27-36

Look around you. There is an army of people out there waiting for you to give them permission to pull you out of yourself, to school you in charity. In them God calls to you: “Do you love me?” All genuine Christian spirituality is in the first and final analysis an answer to that question given to the unpleasant milling around you.

Stay awake and keep watch with them for a while.

Are you saved?

Good Samaritan

Extra Friday edition: Jane Elizabeth update and prayer request!

As you know, I rarely every use this blog to offer service announcements, prayer requests, and such. But last year I made this story an exception, and will do it again. Here is an update from my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Miller:

Thank you so much to all of you who have been praying for Jane Elizabeth and who have been asking me where we are in the process for her visit for medical care at Padre Pio’s hospital, Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza. Especially during these seasons of Lent and Easter, these prayers have been much appreciated!

I have just heard from Fr. Zachary Oburu in Uganda, and Archbishop Emmanuel Obbo of the Archdiocese of Tororo and a lawyer have gone over all of Jane Elizabeth’s documents for her travel visa. All of the necessary documents from Uganda are present! We need only letters from Padre Pio’s hospital to apply for the visa. These have not yet been sent out as Dr. Leonardo must wait upon authorization from the Puglia Region in Italy, which gives the necessary permission.

For some unknown reason, Dr. Leonardo has been awaiting this authorization for three months, both for Jane Elizabeth and for three other patients. He is going in person either tomorrow, April 28, or Tuesday, May 2, to seek this permission from the doctor in charge. Please pray that the authorization for Jane Elizabeth and for the three other patients will come quickly and without delay, so that we can proceed to obtain her visa and the tickets for Italy!

Thank you again for all of your prayers, and please know that we are also praying for you and for all of your families, especially for those who are sick.
God Bless you all!
Yours in Christ,
Jennifer E. Miller, STD
Professor of Moral Theology
Notre Dame Seminary

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Future priests, love the laity!

Yesterday was the last day of a class on the Laity that I co-taught this semester with a colleague. The course was offered to seminarians in their last year of seminary formation. Most of them are deacons now. It was a great privilege. These are truly remarkable men, let me tell you.

I thought I would share with you here today my concluding remarks that I offered during the last 15 minutes of the final class. These comments capture a bit of my vision for the work of priestly formation. For those who read here, this is all familar material (some verbatim from posts).

Pray for them, that they will be priest-saints. Amen.

+ + +

Brothers, we have come to the end of our journey of exploring divine revelation together. What a thrill it has been to engage in that quest with you! I wrote a few thoughts out this morning – the overflow of my heart toward you. Cor ad cor loquitur.

It has been a great honor to co-teach this course with Dr. Daniella [Zsupan-Jerome], whose love for human culture, and the ways faith can elevate, purify and enrich that culture, has stretched and fertilized my imagination and deepened my understanding. Her love for catechesis, liturgy, sacramental life finds a wonderful harmony and expression in the way she teaches, writes, relates, prays and, yes, bears her child [she is ~7 months pregnant]. Christ is among us in you, Dr. D, in the uniqueness of your own feminine and scholarly genius.

This class was created to offer you a chance to reflect in a sustained way on the heartbeat of your mission: to be humble fathers and gentle shepherds who feed and do not feed off of the sheep. Your mission to inspire the laity to live holiness in the states and stations of life to which God calls them. To preach to them the word in its fullness, to be urgent in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, and exhort and be unfailing in patience and in teaching. The lay faithful are hungry to know that their baptism has wrought in them a great thing, a new creation, a sharing in the divinizing energies of the risen God-Man; that their Confirmation has empowered them with all the fullness of the Spirit; that the Eucharist offers them a treasury in which all their daily sacrificial offerings can be transubstantiated and offered up for the life of the world; that all the Sacraments invest their lives with mind-blowing Mystery, with tender Power, with costly Mercy, with aromatic Charity, with every good gift from above, coming down from the Father of lights. The lay faithful are hungry to know that being “in Christ” makes of their life a living, ceaseless, world-consecrating liturgy that detonates new Pentecosts everywhere they bear with them the dying and rising of Jesus in their bodies. Everywhere they live Eucharistic-ly, scattering the logos spermatikoi, the “seeds of the word” everywhere they find themselves.

Brothers, cultivate vibrant faith communities as you are able [with your widow’s mite or mustard seed]. Cultivate places where the communion of faith, hope and love creates fertile, cultivated soil in which the seeds of the word can germinate and sink deep roots and fruit in a vibrant sense of evangelizing mission. Parishes that are schools of prayer, spiritual hostels of hospitality, field hospitals for the wounded to find salve, shrines of Sacramental life, gardens of catechesis, a habitat for poor-weary humanity where Alms are stored in immense barns in plenty supply for wise distribution in time of famine, where the gifts of the Spirit are known and placed in service to Christ’s Body, where neighborhoods nearby remark of your parish: see how they love one another!

Those lay faithful who come to co-work with you, to serve in ministry and collaborate in the up-building of Christ’s Body – help them discern, honor them, nourish their faith, challenge them, respect them, allow them to flourish in placing their gifts in harmony with the whole community. You are a Conductor of a symphony, no matter how modest, that takes its keynote from Christ and makes its own the song of the Bride: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus and save your people!

Those lay faithful who are called by God to live immersed in the world, to be bound up with temporal realities, secular professions, civic and social and family life, must be encouraged to see God in all things. They should hear preaching that announces the Good News that God, who so-loved the world that He gave us His only Son, continues to love the world each day, in each moment through the lay faithful who are His Body in the world.

God’s people should be exposed to a rich conception of vocation that inspires some to be passionate about pursuing the way of perfection in priesthood and consecrated life, wholly dedicated to the “goods of religion.” WHILE you inspire others, called by God to be wholly dedicated to all-thing secular, temporal and worldly, to become passionate about discovering their way of perfection as married, single, single parents, divorced, annulled and remarried, widows and widowers, fathers and mothers, childless couples, lawyers, stockbrokers, janitors, fashion designers, actors, business men and women, doctors, maids, school teachers, janitors, principals, bankers, musicians, factory workers, gunnery sergeants, librarians, machine shop workers, architects, prison guards, manual laborers, accountants, nurses, CEO’s, physicists, counselors, police officers, mechanics, electricians, engineers, secretaries, carpet cleaners, the disabled, homebound elderly or bartenders. And so many more.

Beg the Spirit to lead you to love the secular genius of your faithful people. Fr. Anthony, whom I have mentioned to you before, once spent a whole day, while I was visiting him, in the factory adjacent to his parish so he could understand better many of his parishioners’ daily work lives. He took me with him. One of the men in the factory pulled me aside and said: “Now that’s a great man.” However, had he heard the man say that of him, he would have immediately rebutted the man’s claim by saying (as he often did), “No, you’re the great man. I just look great with these clerics on.”

“Love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).

The laity need apocalyptic preachers who tear open the veils and reveal the Mystery hidden in history; preachers who will help Christ’s faithful see an ordinary world shot through with the glory of God. They need to see a world — unveiled by you! — where simple acts of kindness sustain the world; where simply picking up pins with love (to use the stunning example St. Therese gives us) redeems the whole cosmos because it saves a soul. They need to know that changing the world one diaper at a time, one smile at a time, one act of honesty at a time, one day at a time is possible because they are a kingdom of priests, a guild of prophets, a community of royal servants. God has fashioned the faithful to be His temples where time and eternity intersect; His treasure-laden stewards who leaven, salt and enlighten the world with the Fire they stole at Baptism from the human Heart of God.

Be sure to mark all the exits of your parish church with a fire escape sign, just to remind your people that their mission is to cast Fire on the earth and so consecrate it to God.

You, brothers, need to make real for God’s people Pope Francis’ words in Amoris laetita that I began this course with:

“Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.”

No mess or frailty or fault or foible can detract from authentic Christian mysticism, precisely because our mysticism emerges out of the bloody, broken, chaotic mess of the Passion. Remember, brothers, the Passion did something absolutely astonishing: it brought the Holy of Holies outside the walls of the Holy City, outside the Temple, paraded through tangles of shouting, bartering, laughing, callous, cursing humanity. In Jesus, God bore holiness out along a dusty road leading far beyond the godforsaken highways and byways of a lost and barren world. He forsakes nothing, casts away no one. God sojourned from the sanctuary out into St. Elsewhere, which is precisely where each of you will be heading after Ordination.

Please, I beg you, proclaim from your pulpits: All of God’s people, from greatest to least, have equal access to the fullness of the riches God has given us in Christ. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen

Daft Punk Sabbath

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Jews gave the world a day of rest. No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. Those who live without such a septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are considered slaves in the biblical conception. — Thomas Cahill

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in harmony. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. ― Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Sabbath! Shabbat! The day of ceasing from work, the day of rest, the day of thanksgiving, the day of celebration when Queen Sabbath, and her Lord, come to set free those men and women whom work, under the dominion of sin, ever-threatens to enslave.

When Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” — He was declaring Himself to be the Sabbath, the eternal rest of God-made-man in whom God’s rest and man’s rest coincide. Hebrews 4:1-13 makes this point. The eternal Word is the delighted Sabbath gaze of the Father who, on the 7th day, ceased creating to look back on the “very good” creation He had called into existence out of nothing. And He invites us, made in His image, to join Him on the 7th day in His delighted contemplative gaze on the beauty of both creation and Creator.

In His resurrection, Jesus, having completed all of His redeeming work, entered the 8th day of creation — the day of eternity — to gaze with the Father and the Holy Spirit on the goodness and beauty of the new creation. In Him all creation finds its final rest-oration, and every Sunday is a sacrament of that rest as we cease from our labors and allow God to gaze on us with delight. And in the Holy Mass He invites us, reborn as His sons and daughters, to join Him on the 8th day in His delighted contemplative gaze on the beauty of both re-creation and Redeemer.

Work and rest, labor and leisure, doing and be-ing, action and contemplation, planting and celebrating, harvesting and feasting, giving and receiving, usefulness and uselessness, means and ends, composing and playing. These furious opposites shape a fully human life and give birth to creativity. Leisure, which is a posture of grateful receptivity toward existence as a gift, is not a luxury but a necessity for authentic human living. Leisure and labor are not opposites or competitors, but dance partners. Leisure requires labor, and labor requires leisure. Without leisure there is no “space” made in which we can return to God as a sacrifice all that we have made of what we received. Without leisure we forget to give thanks, we fail to celebrate and the fruit of joy dies on the vine. Without labor we cannot rightly receive the gifts we are given, which requires that we multiply them in service to the good of all to the glory of God. With no labor, there is no sacrificial offering to return God’s fruit-bearing gifts with thanksgiving. God created six days to gather the material for the Sacrifice, and one day to pour it out before Him in joyful celebration.

Oh the purposelessness of Sabbath celebration, of making beauty, of splashing life with infinitely varied colors! The Sabbath commands we have tea with our grandmother, swing quietly beneath the oak with a friend, smell flowers, dance, make love to our spouse, dress up for Mass, set the table for a feast with exquisite care, make music, laugh, play, bathe the feet of Jesus with our tears and dry them with our hair. O sheer, glorious, reckless, blessed waste done for the sake of love without measure.

I worked in an Orthodox Jewish nursing home in Connecticut in the 1980’s and I will never forget the weekly experience of welcoming the Sabbath on Friday evening. With the tables decorated beautifully and adorned with traditional foods and wine, the Rabbi would welcome Lady Sabbath into the Home with song and dance and prayers. “Shabbat shalom…”  All in Hebrew. Many of the residents knew the words, the songs and would sing. While during the week they looked sad from loneliness, on this evening every week all would come alive. It was an emotional thing to watch. For that short time they felt valued, worthy, loved, essential, important, joyful. The world took on a beauty and meaning that it lost during the days of efficiency and procedures, busyness and rushed pragmatism. Eating, drinking, dancing, singing, speaking a sacred language, drawing on memories that went back to childhood; to Sinai; to the dawn of creation. Lady Sabbath had come and set them free from a world that declares the unproductive unworthy, dead weight. A foretaste of the next world, where all means-to-ends collapse into a single End and utility is swallowed up in the final work of all creation: ceaseless celebration of unending love.

Not long ago, I had worked for 14 days in a row. It was a Sunday and I was writing a talk I had to give out of town that week. My son, who wanted to go for a run with me, came over and said, “Dad, when will you be done?” I said, “Not much longer.” He said, “That’s what you said last time.” I got a bit short and said, “I just have to focus, please.” He said, “What are you writing about?” I said, “The Paschal Mystery for an adult education thing.” He said, “Don’t you think the Paschal Mystery would want you to spend time with your family on a Sunday?”

The Church exists in the world to bring to the world the culture of Sabbath. The Church is meant to be for all people a “house of prayer,” a place to bring labors and heavy burdens and rest them on the Altar for total consecration. Like the prodigal son who returned to the father weary, burdened, exhausted and chained by his labors and his sins, we must make Sabbath time to return to God with the sacrifice of our whole life-offering — repented sins and virtuous labors — so He can receive all of it, with us, into His outrageously wasteful (see the older son in Luke 15:25-32) and joyful celebration.

As I like to use off-beat songs to punctuate my points, I will end with the song Daft Punk by one of my favorite contemporary groups, the crazy-talented a capella Pentatonix. They are nuts! The lyrics of this cover-mashup of various Daft Punk songs alternate (in my mind!) between labor and Sabbath celebration. My favorite part of the song is the beginning riff of technologic buzz words that exhaust me just thinking of! Mostly because so much of my work life is dominated by those words. Feel the tension between the freedom of celebration and the work that is “never over.” I won’t attempt any commentary beyond that. If you so desire, watch the wildly colorful and fun music video and follow the lyrics I posted below.

Buy it, use it, break it, fix it,
Trash it, change it, mail, upgrade it,
Charge it, point it, zoom it, press it,
Snap it, work it, quick, erase it,
Write it, cut it, paste it, save it,
Load it, check it, quick, rewrite it,
Plug it, play it, burn it, rip it,
Drag and drop it, zip, unzip it,
Lock it, fill it, call it, find it,
View it, code it, jam, unlock it,
Surf it, scroll it, pause it, click it,
Cross it, crack it, switch, update it,
Name it, rate it, tune it, print it,
Scan it, send it, fax, rename it,
Touch it, bring it, pay it, watch it.
Technologic.

One more time
Ah ah ah ah ah
Ah ah ah ah
One more time
Ah ah ah ah ah
Ah ah ah ah

We’re like the legend of the Phoenix
Our ends with beginnings
What keep the planets spinning
The force of love beginning
We’ve come too far,
To give up who we are
So let’s raise the bar
And our cups to the stars
We’re up all night till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re all up till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re up all night, all night to get,
Up all night to get, get, get lucky
Last night, I had this dream about you
In this dream, I’m dancing right beside you
There’s nothing wrong with just a little bit of fun
We were dancing all night long
Oh, I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
I hope this dream comes true
One more time
We’re gonna celebrate
Oh yeah, all right
Don’t stop the dancing
One more time
We’re gonna celebrate

Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever hour after
Our work is never over
Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever hour after
Our work is never over
I’mma work it harder, make it bett-
Do it faster, makes us
More than ever hou-hour after
Ou-our work is never over
Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever hour after
Our work is never over

Television, rules the nation, oh yeah
Television, rules the nation

Music’s got me feeling so free
Celebrate and dance so free
One more time
Music’s got me feeling so free
We’re gonna celebrate
Celebrate and dance so free (celebrate)
Tonight (We’ve)
Hey, just feelin’ (Come to far)
Music’s got me feeling the need (To give up who we are)
One more time
Music’s got me feeling so free (So let’s)
We’re gonna celebrate (Raise the bar)
Celebrate and dance (And our cups)
To the stars
We’re up all night till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re up all night till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up for
One more time
We’re up all night till the sun
Celebration
Feelings so free
One more time
We’re up all night till the sun
Celebration
Music’s got me feeling so

Our work is never over

River of Life

Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like a mighty stream. — Amos 5:24

Last week I saw a man with this t-shirt on during Mass and I immediately thought of a personal story from years ago. After Mass I chased him down and stopped him to ask if I could take a picture of his shirt. He graciously agreed. Gratefully, my children were not there. They would have fled.

The story…

I remember it vividly. Maybe 25 years ago I was sitting with my spiritual director for our bi-monthly session, and I was sharing the various trials and difficulties I was facing at the time. At some point in the conversation I said, “It’s really hard to focus on my spiritual life with crap like this going on. Can’t God cut me a break?”

He listened patiently, as he always did, but at a certain point when I paused for a moment he said, “Is that all?” I said, “Yes.” He continued, “Tell me, what happened when you were baptized?” I muttered out a few theological points about forgiveness, being made a child of God and a member of the church. He said, “Yes, true. But more to your point today, you died. You were baptized into Christ’s death. On the cross. Do you know what that means for you?” I replied tentatively, “That I have to be more like Jesus?” He said, “Sure, that’s nice and non-threatening. It really means that you have to be willing to die. To let go of everything that keeps you from surrendering to God’s will. If you can only see these challenges as barriers, you’ll never be able to grow. Baptism’s no brook. It’s more like a raging river. You have to trust that if the river breaks you, flips you, knocks you around, it’s only to make you stronger, more trusting, more courageous, more humble. So, are you willing to die or not?”

I was a bit bewildered by his directness. “Yes, in theory,” I answered. He leaned toward me and looked straight into my eyes, “Well, Tom, if it’s in theory then we don’t need to meet anymore. We meet so you can become a saint, and you’re not going to become a saint by refusing to die.”

We sat in silence for at least a full minute. Then he said, “So? What’ll it be?” I looked down and muttered, “Okay, yes Father. I’m in.” He replied very matter of factly, “Okay, then, let’s get down to business.” He put on his stole and asked for my confession.

I love love love real fathers.

“The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5)

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Another Easter meditation.

Last Monday I shared a post on the resurrection that linked Easter Sunday with the first day of creation. In Genesis, Sunday, the first day of the week, is the day God says His very first creative words, “Let there be light.” In the elegance of Latin, it’s simply “Fiat lux.” In the Gospels, Sunday is also the first day of the new creation when the Father spoke alive the corpse of Jesus. A magnificent mirror in time of what happens from all eternity in the Holy Trinity — as we say in the Creed:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made

And through Him all things were re-made as, at the resurrection, the “Light from Light” shone into the darkness of sin and death.

Well, two things happened after I wrote my Easter Monday post that further electrified my imagination. First, as I was praying that same Creed at Mass last Friday (which was the subject of last Saturday’s post), that “light” connection again resonated powerfully in me. Here’s what I wrote after Mass about the experience of praying the Creed:

And as Fr. Joe and I recited the Creed together, this stanza sprang alive:

“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.”

“Rose again” filled me with a stunning image. A sunrise, a brilliant red-giant sun silently breaking above the color-splashed horizon. Filling the world with its own lovely, self-diffusive light. I thought, it’s the nature of the sun to give its light away. Light that illumines, heats, communicating both truth and love. It can do no other. Like the philosophical axiom, ‘bonum est diffusivum’ [the good is self-diffusive], which is the precise meaning of the biblical phrase, “God is love.”

Then I saw this clearly: self-giving light is the whole movement of the Creed. Creation ex nihilo [out of nothing], incarnation, crucifixion, burial into the darkness, resurrection, ascension, pentecost and the judgment day of the returning Christ whose glory illumines all history, revealing whether deeds were done in the light or in the light-hoarding darkness. This whole biblical/theological vision of things, so absurdly rich, makes even more clear how the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” means vastly more than merely proof texting biblical quotes to show where the Paschal Mystery is found in the Old Testament. The Paschal Mystery is absolutely everywhere …

All I can think of right now is the solemn majesty of the Orthodox St. Vladimir seminary choir singing the Creed. As I listen, I can feel the Light streaming, softly shining on my face …

That same Friday night of the Mass I describe above, just before I went to bed, I listened to a portion of a lecture on YouTube. This one was by the Jesuit priest Fr. Robert Spitzer on the Shroud of Turin (the much studied herringbone-patterned linen cloth that has long been thought to be the burial shroud of Christ). In the last part of his lecture he made a point that floored me and I yelled aloud, “What?!” My son across the hall yelled, “You okay, Dad?” I said, “Yeah, you’ve got to hear this!”

It’s really a-ma-zing.

I queued the video here to the portion of the lecture where he makes this point:

The Shroud “negative”, front and back:

Living with and without grace

I heard an Easter homily in 2012 on a Sunday that was just so fabulous and fresh! Here’s the brief summary I wrote afterward (in Nealese):

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s great work of merciful power, an act of divine initiative that surprises, amazes, shocks, stuns, bewilders us because it is unexpected, gratuitous, unmerited, undeserved and absolutely freely given. This is what we mean by grace, God’s free and unmerited favor toward us that we are free to say “yes” to, cooperate with, or not.

Christianity hammers this point home in its every doctrine. But above all it punctuates it in the dogma of the resurrection of Jesus. Just like being ambushed by the risen Jesus, everything we have surprises and confronts us as pure gift, not earned in the first instance in any way. And when we receive the gift, cooperate with it, make something unique of it to offer back to God as a thanksgiving gift that God rewards with more gifts, all of that, from start to finish, is also a gift. As the Mass itself says, “For you are praised in the company of your Saints and, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.”

All is gift.

But there’s a Christian heresy that has long been around. It always lurks, waits for us in the shadows, returns again and again. Pelagianism. It teaches that we must, in the first instance, earn, merit God’s grace, mercy, love. It’s a theology of “impressing God” with our amazing performance in hopes that He will pat us on the back and finally, maybe, start to notice us more or appreciate us. Or maybe even like us.

It’s often tied up with our childhood, it seems to me. If we had parents who made their love depend on our doing things a certain way, or succeeding, it gets chiseled into our thoughts and emotions like a well-worn path we always default to. We begin to equate being loved with pleasing others. Our life then becomes an elaborate, cyclical, exhausting game of assuaging our own guilty feelings or shame by desperately seeking approval through various performances. We develop compulsive habits that are like addictions and are often self-destructive.

We get angry when we don’t get approval. Or we feel disappointed, hurt or angry when we do get approval, because we again and again realize how anticlimactic and disappointing that moment of approval actually was; and after we have worn our knuckles bloody for this or that person; or for God. Or we get competitive with others. Are they working harder than me? Are they smarter than me? Are they better at this or that than me? Are they getting praise and I am not? Or again, we get resentful of those we seek to please because we believe it’s their fault we live in this addiction to performance. Or we get envious of others who seem to be outperforming us.

It just never ends.

Sometimes this is called the “heresy of activism,” and its adherents are a very restless bunch.

Then this whole sick game then gets projected onto God. That’s the theology of Pelagianism.

Yet, orthodox Christianity says God loves us already, regardless of anything, the sinner as infinitely as He does the greatest saint. He even loves us infinitely before we exist in the womb — and you can’t get more unimpressive than not existing!!

And when we do accomplish good works, cooperate with His grace, do heroic deeds, bear fruit, give witness, God’s response is His rejoicing! Why? Because the one He has loved from all eternity has, by doing those things, brought into His creation more of the goodness and beauty he intended for all people, including under-performing ourselves. We don’t live to earn His approval, we live to receive His love and grace and carry out His will for our common flourishing, delighting in every good He intended for us. His glory is our being fully alive.

That’s why the principal signs of work done out of God’s sheer grace are *joy and freedom* in the doer, while the principal signs of an “activism heretic” are guilt, envy, anger, competitiveness, compulsiveness and resentment. Orthodox Christians burn up with God’s fire, Pelagians burn out with their own dying embers cut off from God. The grace-full love to rejoice in and praise the good accomplished by others as a sign of God’s glory, and comparison and competition are far from their mind. While the Pelagian feels guilty, inadequate, envious, angry, resentful in the face of the good works and accomplishments of others. They see another person exceeding them as a theft of the glory that they so desperately want to be theirs. Which, if they are striving for holiness, makes then feel even worse and self-loathe because they don’t want to be like that. And so they drive themselves harder and harder in self-punishment.

Like the old nun in the movie, Song of Bernadette, who is consumed with hatred for the young saintly visionary, Pelagians live safely behind the walls of all the things that make them feel their existence before God and others is justified — their endless activity, longer hours, greater accomplishments or the more impressive hardships they’ve endured. And if you say to Pelagians, “Did you enjoy your time away with nothing to do?”, they lunge with defending facts that make it clear that their time was productive, difficult or maybe was simply a recovery from the rest of their grueling self-justified life. But to confess the enjoyment of simply receiving existence as a gift is to endure the inner scourge of self-recriminating guilt.

A vicious cycle. Exhausting. What a terrible prison! Well, I have come to tell all of you prisoners here today: Jesus has shattered the prison doors! He loves you without measure! Your existence has already been justified by His creating and redeeming love!

This cycle can only be broken by grace; by standing with Jesus in the Jordan river, on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration, or at the empty tomb; or even at the edge of the property of the waiting and watching Prodigal Father, and allow God to speak to the core of our being: “You are my beloved son, daughter. My masterpeice.” Then we can at last taste the joy of this feast and stop spreading the hurt.

Let me end with words from 1600 years ago — St. John Chrysostom’s Easter homily, that bids us today to receive the joy of existence on this Feast as pure gift:

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

This brilliant homily, that shows how a theological ideas has profound implications, reminded me again of a personal witness story I shared here several years ago. It was sent to me by a woman who had attended a retreat I gave. I will end with an excerpt from it:

I grew up in a high-achievement family where we were all expected to prove our worth by achievements in school, sports, and music. And it wasn’t just that my parents wanted me to be successful and reach my potential, but the clear message was: we value you inasmuch as you earn that value. Once I left college and began working in a successful and ascending career, I began to suffer from anxiety and depression, and got involved in relationships that were destructive; where I felt compelled to ‘perform’ for the men I dated and felt a failure if I didn’t meet their demands. It all fell apart in my early thirties, and I ended up coming back to my faith with a vengeance. It was liberating in ways that I cannot express.

But I was still who I was, and even if Jesus had come and given me new hope I still operated in the prove-my-worth mode. But now, my compulsion was spiritualized, and I began to be obsessed with being an Über-Catholic who gained the admiration of my Catholic peers. I found myself constantly finding subtle and not-so-subtle ways to make known to my Catholic peers my dedication to prayer that made me feel a mystic; to make known the trials and tribulations of my life that made me feel a martyr; to make known the simplicity of my life that made me feel a veritable nun; to make known the goodness of my deeds that made me feel a Mother Teresa; and to make known the orthodoxy of my thought that made me not-like-those-half-baked-Catholics who just weren’t up to my level of radical-ness. And at the core of it all, un-admitted, there was seething anger that drove me; lots of anger; anger that no one really measured up, and that I never measured up. And that God’s face toward me was a mostly a grimace.

Then it all came crashing down again as I suffered from a fresh bout of anxiety from all the pent-up anger, from trying to be what I was not, and failing to feed sufficiently my voracious, though well-cloaked appetite for others’ approval. And from the midst of this real suffering and this real poverty, in my breakdown, I suddenly faced who I was: a weak, needy and fragile woman who was ready to surrender my anger and say, in the secret of my heart, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

And it was undoubtedly the first time I ever really meant it, that I meant those words I always said to causally at Mass; and maybe it was even the first time I had ever really prayed.

After that, my anger withered and I lost my compulsive need to seek others’ attention, approval, admiration; I lost my need to be a saint for others and without God; and I gained a new — so new! — desire to seek not God’s admiration or applause, but his mercy. And it was all like a second birth, a second conversion, and it set me free from me. My anxiety melted away, and though I flirt now and again with these old habits and patterns, there’s something new in me that makes it all different.

And I remember the first time after this all happened that I knew I was different. I met up with one of my Catholic friends, and for the first time in my life I felt that my interest in being with her wasn’t about me. I forgot I was there, and I didn’t even think about what she thought of me.

My favorite song now is the spiritual, Freedom. That’s my song.