Do what you are doing

A very simple post today.

As a man, my wife reminds me now and again, I am not very good at attending to more than one thing at once, nor to details, nor am I adept at shifting quickly from theoretical to practical considerations. Myopic, I. When I am driving the car and begin to speak about something of intellectual significance, I keep driving straight, miss turns and slow down to 35 mph. If we are having a conversation about, say, some recent public criticism of Pope Francis, and then Patti suddenly asks me if I dropped off at the post office the letter she gave me,  it takes a good 30 seconds for me to exit the Pope and consider the letter. And even longer to return to the Pope. Well, actually, I think in that case she asked about the letter because I was getting too long-winded and she was being kind by gently diverting me.

Unfortunately for people like me, life does not happen one thing at a time in comfortably paced sequence. It can get exhausting for simple minds like mine. I have certainly adapted to some extent over the years, but it’s clear that I ain’t gonna change much. So, in response, I have discovered the great and important power of stopping throughout the day at considered moments — especially when things are complex, rapidly changing or confusing — to attend to the present moment. To the here, the now, the slow, the stillness. Of practicing a minute of re-centering mindfulness — pausing and becoming aware of details in my immediate surroundings, taking a few deep breaths, offering the mind a moment of rest and giving thanks to God for some small thing. Like that paperclip holding these papers together or this person I am with.

I find that giving thanks to God makes me suddenly aware of His presence more than anything else does, and awareness of God’s presence has a profoundly unifying effect on everything.

Then I move on with a better attitude.

I think of these as micro-retreats in my day, and in league with my daily morning prayer routine, they constitute my ‘contemplative’ labor to reset my anchor in the Rock.

I have found over the years that this practice helps me to, as St. Benedict said it, age quod agis, “Do what you are doing.” To be human.

Promotional: Theology on Tap in NOLA

I wanted to invite New Orleans area residents to attend a Theology On Tap event in Covington, LA that my Seminary colleague, Mrs. Caroline Butterworth, MATS, will be leading on my favorite topic, “Christ in the Secular Vocation.” I am assuming it is ‘on’ as the weather has moderated, but Facebook link here.

Running out of Mass into the Secular World

[written in one sit without an edit, so pardon any mess ups]

“I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness” ― E.E. Cummings

I gave 2 talks on Saturday at a catechetical conference, one on the spirituality of a catechist, the other on the mission of the Catholic laity in the world. I told attendees if they wanted a copy of my PowerPoint, I would be happy to share. The notes I will keep for myself as I work to turn them into a book this summer. If you want the PPTs, just email me at laityrock@gmail.com

As often happens when I write and deliver talks, my view of everything is affected as my insights infest my vision. As I prepared this laity talk, my mind exploded with brand new insights — most of which did not make their way into the talk. Though they did muddle my talk a bit as I had too much going on in my head!

Most of these insights had to do with the God-given beauty, goodness, autonomy and integrity of the “secular world,” by which Catholics mean the nearly infinite panoply of good things that constitute the entirety of this world in its integrity, the created “temporal” order of time and space that we inhabit prior to death; and the culture-civilization that humanity builds in this temporal world to make it into the life-giving “garden” God made it to be. The whole of Scripture is the story of God’s creating and rescuing the secular to free it to be wholly itself, to reveal His Glory in its own integral structures — all being confirmed in Jesus, God-made-secular.

In Catholic Culture, deeply influenced by the hostility of atheistic secularism to theistic secularism, we tend to think of “secular” as a pejorative, i.e. as hopelessly tainted, of less importance than the “spiritual,” as intrinsically alienating from God, or maybe at best as just neutral “stuff” we have to endure or use as we make our way toward the eternity of heaven, which is obviously not secular. So devout Catholics tend to say things like, “I don’t get involved in secular things like I used to,” or “I used to be totally secular but now I am much more spiritual.” So when Vatican II says that “what is peculiar to the laity is their secular genius” and that their path to holiness is found in “secular professions,” it all seems so, well, wrong.

If we re-claim the Catholic sense of secular, we realize that such negative statements are misguided and buy whole-hog into the atheistic framing of the “secular” world as closed to transcendent meaning, cold, violent, directionless, godless, meaningless and wholly inimical to faith.

Okay, so I will stop and leave the rest for my book, God willing.

My simple point here today was to be this.

I went to Mass the next day at the Cathedral in New Orleans, with all this cycling in my imagination. As the Gifts of bread, wine and alms were brought forward at the Offertory, I had a disruptively intense experience of these Gifts as a highly compressed form of the “secular world” that had been cultivated by human labor and consecrated to the Kingdom of God by human love — more specifically, the labor and love of those people in that Church that morning. The Gifts were compressed artifacts of our work of civilization-building brought to the threshold of the Kingdom of God. I know this is not a novel insight, but it was a novel experience of the truth of the insight for me.

When I swallowed the Holy Eucharist at Communion, wow, it was a stunning awareness of all these insights fusing with the reality of the risen Christ in my mouth and my stomach. I at once remembered the above words of Cummings — which I have always loved. I indeed took the Sun into my mouth, Son of God-made-secular, now, in this Mass, made into our secular right there in Jackson Square. The secular offering of all of us baptismal-priests who had brought that morning the whole world with us into Mass, to give it over to heaven — not for desecration, condemning it, but for Consecration, redeeming it.

Then and there I saw the sacred was simply the secular in its most intensely God-imbued, God-inhabited, God-breathed, God-redeemed form, i.e. the in-breaking Kingdom Jesus Christ in His Church spreading like contagion throughout the universe from this Mass.

After Mass, I had to run fast to find a bathroom (the Cathedral has no public bathroom) — giving me a new understanding of the end of Mass words, “Go! Be Sent!” As I ran out into Jackson Square, in the French Quarter, in search of relief, there around me was wild, untamed, teeming humanity in the center of the secular City. There, with the Sun still in my mouth, I ran with me the Kingdom out Alive and leapt into the ripe air to face the darkness with light, eyes closed in trust of the so-Lover of the world.

There, I was missioned by God to run out and co-cultivate, co-civilize, co-redeem all of this with all of them, and with All of Him, Emmanuel, to gather the whole secular world up again (and again) for the next Mass. And the next Mass. Not to progressively eliminate the secular and make everything spiritual, but too knit heaven and earth, God and world, secular and spiritual together in a hypostatic union. Knit in me, in us who are by baptism the Body of our God, Jesus Christ. Forever. World without end. Amen.

David’s Wavering Worship

thewinedarksea.com

[This will be my last post till this weekend, likely]

I wrote this poem sometime before 2008 after attending Mass with a friend who was dying of ALS. A man of deep faith. He sat in a wheelchair in front of our family, moving awkwardly and clearly was in pain. At the Consecration, I looked at the elevated Host which, from my vantage, was just over his right shoulder. The priest’s hand was wavering, so the Host moved during those seconds. Swayed with this man, it seemed, as if they were moving together. One sacrifice. Later in the Mass the priest brought him Communion, which he struggled to receive, awkwardly moving with the Host as the priest followed him until he ingested Him.

That night I wrote this poem.

+ + +

David’s Wavering Worship
Rough-hewn, splintered wood gathered
as kindle for a mighty Flame
’round which we whirl unchained wild
like royal David of dancing fame.
For me it is certain (though dimly seen)
there was a Fiery Divine-human yearning
with raging-hunger on his blistered tongue
pining, writhing to taste impossible Love
in Passover mystery, living Memory sung
singing downward from High Above
through the steaming Blood of Adonai, arising.
Wheat crushed, ground-divinity chewed
for God is Bread, immortal Love-made-Food,
bitter herbs with all sweetness endued.
Metabolized in one Body, one Flesh co-dying
expiring, a consecrating desecrated Corpse all-Holy
risen now Most High in glory, a Father’s Only Own
become our Food of freedom, us setting free
to love like Bloodied water outpoured, wastefully:
God who reigns, Beauty blessing from the cursèd Tree.

+++

And for whatever reason, that night, this song was playing in my head as I thought of him, Him together at that morning Mass.

Frittered away by detail

thelaratouch.com

[this is the post I mistakenly posted the other day before it was edited. I had been cobbling it together over a month’s time. Hope it is useful.]

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau

My New Year’s Resolution is to cut away all the fat, all the excess, all the frivolous or directionless investments of time and energy that distract me from what is essential, and from those who are essential in my life. I have a short, doable list of specifics, but that’s the general theme. And, like salvation, this resolve is not a once-saved-always-saved decision, but one that requires a daily renewal of vows.

Fulton Sheen once said that rivers are only strong and deep when they have sharp and firm borders that define their course with purpose. The Desert Fathers argue that among the greatest obstacles to progress in spiritual maturity is “dissipation,” the helter-skelter life. For the Fathers, the endless flitting from thing to thing without sustained attention, without a defined purpose that serves worthy goals, chokes off the virtues of temperance, fortitude and patient endurance. The dissipated may do many good things, but few of them well, none with consistency, and all absent of the ability to build that virtue that alone carries you from good to saint, perseverance.

Early last Fall, I was being pressed against the wall of my limits and knew I needed to reassess my commitments. I re-connected with an old friend I always go to when I want unvarnished honesty from someone who knows me too well, and who understands the challenges of balancing marriage, raising children, work and the rest of life. People like that in your life are gold.

Among other things, he encouraged me to engage in a week-long time audit. He said, “My father used to always say, if you want to know a man’s priorities, follow the check ledger and follow the clock. Where your time is, there is your treasure, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He added that in his experience people tend to be the most defensive when you question their use of time or their money spending habits, “because everyone knows by instinct both lay naked your real priorities.”

He jotted down a list for me on a napkin and asked me to see how I fared in investing my time into these 9 categories: focused time for prayer, focused time with spouse, focused time with children, exercise, eating with others, eating alone, personal leisure, work, sleep. He also required a separate spread sheet for me to examine the time (how much and when) I spent looking at any screens and the purpose of viewing.

Let’s just say, though carrying out the audit was challenging (a lot of work!), the results were eye-popping on all fronts. But the beauty of an audit is it eliminates all space for rationalizing distortions of how I in fact spend my time and allowed me to come up with a plan that addressed concrete issues. And some of the changes I have made have already yielded peace in my life and my family’s life.

We often think of peace as that “oceanic” feeling of tranquility when we feel good about life and have no angst or cares. However, St. Augustine defines peace as tranquillitas ordinis, “the tranquility of order,” and by order he means a life intentionally organized around the demands of justice and charity. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.”

Peace requires that you bring an order to your world that begins with ensuring you are being faithful to your primary life commitments in a sustained and enduring way. This requires simplicity. Simplicity does not mean a mere absence of “stuff” in your life, as much as it evidences a unity of focus, i.e. living so everything conspires toward the service of your primary commitments. This form of simplicity requires a resolve based not just on passing feelings, but on lasting virtues. Which means it takes hard work.

As my oldest son once said when he was 4 years old, repeating the proverb he mistakenly thought my wife had been saying all his life, “I know, mom, patience will hurt you.”

Only a well-ordered life allows for genuine spontaneity, opens an authentic space of freedom for the Spirit to blow where He wills — which is always in the context of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). Those who live by emotional whim, who justify disorder by referring to what God has supposedly “placed on my heart,” ignoring the presiding role of good judgment and the necessity of exercising the hard virtues, don’t experience spontaneity. Rather, they live in disorder constructed around personal preference dressed in religious garb. And it is my experience that these ’emo-gnostics,’ more often than not, cause others who rely on them to suffer far more from the effects of their canonized egoism than they do themselves. But they often don’t notice these casualties, as their priorities are built around their own immediate needs which, they believe, God always blesses.

To bring peace into the world you have to take charge of your life, assume responsibility for your use of time, consider your primary commitments, think of how your decisions affect others, act with purpose and intention, plan and assess regularly how you are doing, and establish a relationship of accountability to keep you honest and cover blind spots. This is a marvelous asceticism, a personal discipline that can grow a garden of virtues and benefit many people’s lives around you who depend on you being faithful to first things first. Our life is to be a living liturgy, and if you look at the Church’s liturgy, well, it’s really really well ordered and planned, with intention. It’s what St. Paul calls the offering of logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), which is far better than emotional worship.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship.

One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, voices well my own vivid awareness of the need to intentionally steward my time: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” May 2018 offer a new opportunity for consecrating time to God, of stewarding this most precious gift that comes to us but once and passes through our hands into eternity. May my every moment become a worthy, intentional, just and love-drenched offering. Not much time left, so let’s get to it…

O Lord, you have shown me my end,
how short is the length of my days. — Psalm 39:5

Baptized in Mud

Happy Epiphany of the Lord!

The Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Evangelization asked me to record a brief reflection on tomorrow’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I think they chose that video thumbnail just to humiliate me.:)

So here it is, for what it’s worth.

“The gate of heaven is very low” — Mother Seton

Fr. McManus

The gate of heaven is very low; only the humble can enter it. — St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Thursday was Mother Seton’s feast day, and as I read from her writings this line sparked a meandering meditation.

A marvelous Irish priest, Fr. Eamon McManus, had a huge impact on me 25 years ago. He’s a humble, brilliant and saintly priest (he’d hate that I said that), who still serves as a spiritual director at Ave Maria University.

Once we were talking about my hopes for a future teaching career, and he said (per my journal): “Be sure you stay far away from the celebrity cult of personality that is so endemic to American culture. Remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the mission you’re given by God. The best sign that you’re all about mission and not about yourself is when you can value praise and criticism equally, as both serve the mission equally. When you become sensitive to or avoid criticism, or start finding yourself subtly seeking out attention, know you’ve lost your mission. A fall is nigh.”

That applies to all of life, as we assume roles appropriate to our mission, roles that transcend our ego, e.g. parent, spouse, teacher, priest, servant-leader in professional and personal life. I remember a retired German professor at Florida State, whom I met at a Wesley Campus Ministry event, saying to me once: “Let me give you a little advice since you plan to be a teacher. Don’t try to get your students to like you. Just love them. You know how you know when you’ve transitioned from a good to a great teacher? When your students hate you because you challenged them to greatness, and you smile inside knowing you did it because you loved them. No student I was easy on ever returned to thank me later, but many I made sweat did.”

With any and all roles we assume, we enter a mission that precedes us, a role which defines us and so is not about us. We are called to serve the good of others placed in sub-mission to us, literally “under the mission” we have been given.

Jesus captures this when He says,

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. — Mark 10:45

The Son of God became man not to gain some personal benefit for Himself — He needs nothing! — but to embrace the mission of “God saves,” entirely for us and for our salvation. He demonstrated His greatness as the Good Shepherd precisely in those final moments of His life when rejection and hate were most fierce, and His love was at its most intense.

I tell the seminarians in Pastoral Theology that clericalism can be defined as “the shepherd feeding off of the sheep, instead of feeding the sheep, which includes feeding hungry egos and wallets, spending clerical capital for personal gain.” Of course, this is simply a paraphrase of Ezekiel 34:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost.

Jesus, on the other hand, was sure to use His priestly privilege only to empty His riches:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

But such “clericalism” can invade any way of life, every religious tradition, profession. Whenever we turn the power and influence entrusted to us for others’ benefit into a self-service, we all lose.

I discussed this not long ago with a priest I know, and he shared with me some of his creative strategies for avoiding this general temptation. He gives all of the restaurant gift cards he receives to young married couples (usually with small children) who are on a tight budget, along with money for babysitting, so they can have a date night. He graciously turns down any personal perks offered to him because he’s a priest, but instead asks the perk-giver to choose someone else as a beneficiary in his stead. But I especially loved the creativity of his decision to move the “Pastor” sign in the parish church parking lot from the spot immediately in front of the church to a far back corner of the lot. He said that when people ask him why he moved the sign, he says, “I need the exercise.”

May Father Eamon and Mother Seton’s words define me, define all of us to be servants to the mission we have been entrusted with by God.