Mission: Love

From  Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Wounded Healer:

One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man were handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do.

The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.” Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden.

After the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room.

That night an angel came to him, and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”

While versions of this story are very old, it seems the most modern of tales. Like that minister, who might have recognized the Messiah if he had raised his eyes from his Bible to look into the youth’s eyes, we are challenged to look into the eyes of the young men and women of today, who are running away from our cruel ways. Perhaps that will be enough to prevent us from handing them over to the enemy and enable us to lead them out of their hidden places into the middle of their people where they can redeem us from our fears.

“It takes lot of butterflies to make a world full of flowers” ― Trina Paulus

[re-post from 2015]

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” ― Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Not long ago, at his request, I shared with the priest I go to Confession to regularly the story of how I came to meet my wife. This priest is really exceptional for me, as he challenges me very hard, and helps me search my heart to see more clearly what drives me to self-destructive behavior, i.e. sin. As I shared various important moments in our relationship, he kept taking me back further and further, all the way back to the time before we met. It was a remarkable, and emotional, journey to take with him.

We ended up all the way back in October of 1984, to the origin of my decision to leave Massachusetts and go to Florida State University, where I would eventually meet my future wife, Patti Masters. He said, “Why Florida State?” I told him that decision originated in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV in Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. At the time, I was myopic in my resolve to be everything Jim Cantore became — a TV weatherman.

I went to “spend a day” with Bruce and was starstruck. He was so generous with his time and wisdom, even indulging my obsession with mesoscale convective complexes by answering my many questions. At the end of my day of shadowing, after he had finished the 6 PM newscast, he said, “Well, so the million dollar question is where to go to college for this career. Florida State and UCLA. But I consider FSU’s Meteorology department, with Jim O’Brien there, to be top notch.” And so it was, sunny Florida.

In Florida I would discover myself, my faith, my passion for learning, my wife, my career path.

My Confessor then said to me:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had shaped by that one comment? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to conversion to the faith, meeting your wife, having your children, establishing friendships, a career in the church — endless effects!

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It’s a physics theory that says, for example, the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is impacted by something as minuscule as the flapping wing of a butterfly months earlier in Panama. Never underestimate the effects your least significant acts of fidelity can have on the future world. For your every new movement, the future is filled with things that never had to be this way.

Remember, just because you don’t see the effects, you’re often tempted to despair and say: “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t really matter.” But it all does matter. We tend to be so myopic and narrow in our judgment on the value of everything we do. We massively undervalue what God can do with our little nothings entrusted to Him.

Think of life as ecosystem. The interdependence of everything we are about is so staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate that just one decision, one smile, one quiet “whoosh” of a sacrifice — or one harsh word — can change the course of history. For better or for ill. Your secret interior life radiates out into the whole cosmos. Even your most secret thoughts make it easier, or more difficult, for those around you to follow Christ.

Begin each day with a prayer for the Spirit to guide your thoughts, words, actions, that they will set in motion the uncountable goods He wills. Then at the end of every day entrust all to His mercy. Ask Him to forgive failures and bless successes, and untangle knots you have tied up. God loves to make faults “happy.” We need to beg Him to do that, daily.

On Judgment Day, one of the things we will see, through God’s eyes, is the astonishingly complex web of influence we were part of. We will be allowed to see our role in that web. Imagine seeing that! Thrilling, terrifying. Kyrie eleison.

I am convinced Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” will come to us from people we’ve never met, who were not fed by us directly but by the others we impacted, who in turn fed them. Generations later in the future. Think of that next time you feel your work is insignificant. Given to grace, its impact is without borders.

When God chose Abram and Sarai, He didn’t say, “Look at the ground in front of you and think of today and your next step.” He said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count! ‘Countless’ is the size of impact you will have on all of history!” They gave their Yes and, holy cow, look at what’s happened! God said, “Go!”, they went, and 1800 years later, God becomes flesh. And 3800 years later, you. Me. Patti. Your children.

God’s plan is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.

Additionally amazing is that a friend, just last week, said to me, “Tom, what you are doing now for your children will fulfill its purpose in your great great grandchildren.”

May we learn to be silent


“There is so much noise in the world! May we learn to be silent in our hearts and before God.” — Pope Francis

I met a woman who has been a therapist for nearly 40 years, and is very committed to her faith. About 15 years ago, she confided to me something she said she believes was inspired — whenever she sits with a new client, she immediately writes them a “prescription” before their first session even begins. It reads, “30 minutes every day in undistracted silence.”  After she hands it to them, she explains that during that time they are to keep a journal of all that comes up during those 30 minutes. And if they find initially that 30 minutes is too difficult to handle, she tells them to start with 5 minutes and then work to build up, little by little, toward the magic 30 minutes.

She said she decided to do this when she noticed, with the advent of the Internet, the increasing difficulty people were having engaging in any serious form of self-reflection. She said, “It had become a very rare thing for people to actually set aside all distractions and simply sit in quiet and allow their inner world to surface.” She continued, “Facing yourself and life can be scary, and the temptation to be compulsively active and distracted is enormous. It’s toxic to mental health. But the insights gained from those daily quiet times can be amazing. And silence, like sleep, allows the mind opportunity to process, to sort information, to heal. Those journal entries give us the best and most productive material for making progress in counseling.” She added, “It seems revolutionary now, since the coming of the iPhone had made it all a thousand times worse.”

I thought of this as I began to read Robert Cardinal Sarah’s incisive book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. He says,

When we retreat from the noise of the world in silence, we gain a new perspective on the noise of the world. To retreat into silence is to come to know ourselves, to know our dignity … If we give ourselves to ephemeral and insignificant things, we will understand ourselves as ephemeral and insignificant. If we give ourselves to beautiful and eternal things, we will understand ourselves as beautiful and eternal.

That therapist shared with me one other “silence strategy” she employs for couples. “When married couples find themselves unable to communicate constructively during a session, I will ask them to just sit there in quiet and look at each other. For five minutes. And then we resume. Very frequently, it makes all the difference. Something about simply looking at someone, someone you really do love, despite your differences, and just allowing them to be there in front of you — something about that makes them both more vulnerable, more willing to let down their guard.”

Mashley’s “Untitled” Cover!

Nothing exists without music, for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tone of that harmony. — St. Isidore of Seville

For those of you who don’t frequent Obstat, this is Maria (my daughter) and Ashley singing. I post their work here, (1) because I’m a dad and (2) because this blog is dedicated to allowing beauty to save the world.

Oh, Maria makes up those harmonies — since she was very little, she says, she could ‘hear’ harmonies in all monophonic music she’d hear.

Sic transit gloria mundi

Toscanini once recorded a piece sixty five times. You know what he said when he finished? “It could be better.” Think about it. ― Terrence Malick

A simple truism that has deeply impacted my experience of life: Nothing, no work is complete, finished, permanent in this life. All things have ragged, torn edges. They fade, get lost, soil, break, fail, wear out, decay, die.

Yet, this does not mean we can therefore diminish, demean or despair of the deep meaning and inestimable value of this passing world — the first creation. This world, in its total state of incompletion, is an unfinished symphony, standing like a gaping, aching, yearning epiclesis crying out in the Spirit to the Risen Christ, “Come!” (Rev. 22:17; cf Rom. 8:18-25).

Sic transit gloria mundi, “Thus passes the glory of the world,” is a Spirit-carved, plaintive invocation offered up by us to Jesus to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5); to bring all of creation to completion by “gathering up” (ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι) all things in His dead and risen Body (Eph. 1:10).

Yes, the world’s glory passes, but it passes over as a Passover sacrifice, and we who are Jesus’ priestly Body co-transact that passing over. Lumen Gentium 34:

For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

This vantage turns every moment’s experience of “the incomplete” into an omnipotent prayer of consecration, placing our procession of passing glories into the heart of the final consecratory word of Jesus from the Cross — Tetelestai, “It is finished” (John 19:30). In His death of love all our limits die, and rise. Omnia vincit amor.

Gaudium et spes 39:

Having completed the work God called them to do in this world, they will find rest. Moreover, their works will accompany them, and they will find once more, in the land of the living, all the good fruits of their nature and effort—but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed.

“God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.” — St. Teresa of Calcutta

“A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of man is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.” ― Jean Vanier

About 28 years ago, I befriended a remarkable man with a fascinating and colorful background. And thanks to his faithfulness, we’ve been close friends ever since. He’s immensely bright in a rare way that combines book knowledge, professional excellence, street smarts and emotional intelligence. He is exceedingly joyful, witty, thick-skinned yet tender-hearted, a phenomenal judge of character, a careful listener with an elephant’s memory, and is the supreme networker who uses his many connections to benefit others.

After spending many successful years in a high profile profession, he left his career and embraced the call to priesthood, and has served for over 20 years as a faithful parish priest. With a vivid awareness of his own weaknesses and sins, he approached his calling to priesthood with the spirit of St. Peter: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). And he meant those words to the core of his being. During his years of priestly ministry, he has touched the lives of countless people with the mercy of Jesus Christ, including my own family; and often in very profound ways.

He prays his rosary daily, his Office, the Mass, his Holy Hour. He freely gives away his time, his energy, his wisdom, and his money. I once wrote in my journal of him, “Fr. [Name] never took Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:21 as a one time deal when he quit his job and gave up everything, but made them a whole lifestyle:

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give all to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

Beginning in seminary and extending into priesthood, he has suffered many, many hardships and has been weighed down by many cares and let-downs. But unless you knew him well, you would never know that as he always presses on outwardly with unflagging zeal, lifting up everyone around him along the way. I have known very few people in life who have lifted the hearts of so many people, even while they themselves were heavily weighted down with such heavy cares.

I once told him that every time I hear the Chumbawamba song, Tubthumping, I think of him:

I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down

But here is the real gold I have received from him. When we first met, I was super-spiritual (said tongue-in-cheek) and told him that I wanted to live out St. John of the Cross’ mystical union with God, and experience the amazing raptures he describes. He smiled and said, “Wow, Tommy, that’s a great thing to aspire to. And you’re the kind of guy God would give that to. But me, well, I’m too much of a sinner and too weak for that. I only ask God for one thing every day, ‘God, just keep me faithful.'” I remember thinking, in my youthful arrogance, “Man, he’s setting the bar low.”

Almost 30 years later, I have discovered that his is the pearl of great price, the inner form of true greatness. Beneath the plain surface of his daily life burns the fire of union with Christ, all as he carries on tirelessly, quietly pouring out his life “for many” (Matt. 26:28). No fireworks, no swoons or raptures, just quiet, unsung faithfulness to the work of loving those whom God places in his path.

Once when he and I were walking toward a diner to get some breakfast, we passed what appeared to be a homeless woman. He stopped, went over to her to give her some money, made her laugh and then blessed her. As I watched this, I could hear in my mind Jesus saying to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).

Clearly, he has already entered into it, as it spills out of him everywhere he goes.

If I had to define Childhood

[Re-post from 2017. After today I will pause on posting until maybe Sunday as I have so many talks to write and give this week]

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matt. 18:3

After watching some home videos, all six of us sat around in a circle on the floor in the family room, late on a Saturday night, remembering life when the children were little. We laughed at the memories around the videos, and even remembered some stories we had long forgotten.

It. Was. Awesome.

One of our children said, “It makes me sad to think back, though. Life was so simple then, the world was so magical, enchanted. You know? Especially before social media. Everything seemed possible then. Then you get older and you see it’s not quite so simple. The real world doesn’t seem to get that so well. It’s just so cynical. I hate that.”

Later, after everyone had gone to bed, a had a good cry. I am just so pathetic. I wrote in my journal:

I remember when that old man approached me after I had given my first lecture on ‘wonder as a prerequisite to the act of faith.’ The man’s face was riven with furrows that seemed to have been cut by years of tears. And he had tears in his eyes as he spoke to me: “Life beat wonder out of me long ago, son. Thank you for restoring hope in me tonight that I could regain it. To have a second childhood, be born again, as you put it.”

If I had to define Childhood as a sacrament of the Kingdom, I might say: (1) The stage of life when the world teems with divine glory, guarded by innocence, brimming over with joy, play, wonder, awe, laughter, life lived in the moment beneath the eyes of a carefree Father. (2) The state of mind kindled by an imagination freshly minted in eternity, free to roam through the expansive meadows of possibility that awaken just over the brow of every horizon. (3) The state of immunity from cynicism. (4) The capacity to naturally see (and receive) all as brand new, as crisply fresh, as sheer gift, shot through with surges of spontaneous gratitude that inspire generosity and an embrace of what is as the only springboard into a hoped-for future of what can be.

I am certain — I felt a breeze from the East, enveloping us as we sat together on the floor; a zephyr descending (before its time) from the coming Kingdom, where

the wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:6-9