Nirvana Café

A man wrote me the other day after reading my post on the laity, “Well done.” He said,

I’m a business owner in small town Missouri, and I’ve always thought of my work the way you describe it here [in this post] though I never knew it was a Catholic thing. I’ve always thought my work was to leave people better off than they came, help them be better people for having done business with us. And by this I mean my employees and customers, really anyone I connect with in working. In business, you realize how many people touch your life and you theirs. Life’s a web. As a Catholic who has long practiced my faith it’s wonderful to now connect faith and business in this way. You made me think. That was all new to me honestly. Now even to see the Mass this way which I’ve faithfully attended all my life really makes a big difference.

Or then there was the cashier “Marta” who wrote here that she has now taken that Doctor’s prayer — “my dear Lord God, my love for you brings me here, because the greatest of your commandments is love” — into her work as her “arrow prayer” shot straight into the Heart of God (Sirach 35:21 for sure).

I told my wife, Marta’s comment was among the highest, most meaningful affirmations I have ever received for my writing. Great love makes all things great.

This is why I write, to remove as many obstacles as possible that prevent people from seeing the great dignity they have, the greatness of their calling and the greatness of what they are already about. The Latin Nihil obstat means “nothing stands in the way.” That’s why I took this name for my Blog. Neal Obstat exists to help remove from people’s lives as many obstacles as possible so they can see the God-given greatness of who they are and who they can become.

I will end with a marvelous poem I just came across about a Café, a plot of earth consecrated to God by beauty, leaving “people better off than they came, helping them be better people for having done business with us.”

May people of faith fill the world with such beauty in their Cafés, and may we notice it…

Cancer, the Cross, TØP

[Re-post from September 14, 2016]

What a providential coincidence, today’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and yesterday’s release of the new Twenty One Pilots cover of My Chemical Romance’s 2006 song, Cancer. I just listened to it and had some really stirring insights. Here’s my journal entry from early this morning:

True to form, this new TØP release of takes us to the margins of social existence, to the shadowy edges of life that are inhabited by pain, fear, alienation. The lyrics give voice to a young person (a woman?) in the last stages of terminal cancer, wasted away by chemo. She feels the agony of distance that illness brings, a thirst for love that can no longer be satisfied. Her isolation is so powerfully captured by her refusal of a kiss and the acceptance that she will never marry, as her body dissolves and death nears.

So much depth and power in those lyrics, those sounds. Your heart breaks if you’ve known someone ravaged by cancer and chemotherapy.

Today the church celebrates the Cross. Celebrates and exalts it. That should strike us, as it strikes a friend of my wife who cannot celebrate this feast because of her own experiences of trauma and suffering.

Yet, faith reveals in the Cross the solidarity of God with human pain, isolation, alienation. The tearing of His heart, the burning thirst for water, the acid of human rejection and hatred, the terrible curse of death. Yet into this dark valley Jesus infuses something stunningly new: hope, saturated in amazing love.

The natural human response to pain is withdrawal, self-preservation, inward-turning isolation, black despair. But in Christ, God Himself embraced pain to His core, and by choosing exodus, self-gift, outward-turning communion, bright hope, He has flooded the earth with the balm of mercy that lights up every darkness, breathes life into death and trust into fear. On the Cross, Jesus’ thoughts were only of others’ welfare, even when He felt abandoned by the only source of hope: the Father.

Our hope is in a God hanging, bleeding, dying; in a God of hyper-extreme love. Emptied, abandoned, parched, dead. A God who loves eis telos, “to the end” (John 13:1), and beyond (Rev. 1:18).

In Baptism we were plunged into that love, recreated by it, filled with it, called to become gushing fountains of it. In the Eucharist, we eat and drink it.

Jesus’ whole mission was centered on the margins of the circle. On the Cross, He collapsed the circle into a singularity, uniting us in the infinite center that He is. See Him in the Gospels, drawing the margins to the center, the center to the margins. The healthy to the sick, the strong to the weak, the rich to the poor, the housed to the homeless, the living to the dying, the knowledgeable to the ignorant, the righteous to sinners.

The Last Judgment in Matthew 25 — “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, alien, and you…” — ensures that there will be, in the end, “one Christ loving Himself” (Augustine, Homily 10 on 1 John). Or John 17:22-23, the same: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

The Church is this subversive cycle, thrust by the Trinity into the heart of the world, invading death’s every divisive stronghold.

Mother Teresa once said in an interview that if God has given her health, it is not a sign of His favor toward her, but a sign of His favor toward the sick. She is healthy precisely so she can expend her health on the infirm.

From the Cross, God beckons humanity: “Encounter me on the margins, outside the city walls, amid the ruins strewn on Skull Place. There, and only there, do I recreate the whole of creation.”

Five years ago, a dear friend of Patti and mine died of cancer, and from the horrid effects of chemo. Three hours before he died, while he was unconscious, my wife sang to him two songs he loved, “Were You There” and “Come Home.” After she finished, he took an enormous breath, and made a sound. The room was filled with a strange power all felt. How death in God levels, binds us, ones us.

Here’s the song:

Losing Power with Judith Snow

Judith Snow. selfconscious.ca

“Jennifer,” who regularly comments on this Blog with profound insights, left a comment this morning on yesterday’s post. I just had to share it with all readers, it is so rich. I also appended a brief interview with Jean Vanier, who, as for Jennifer, is a personal hero of mine. Thank you, Jennifer, for opening up the mystery of “almsgiving” (literally, mercy-giving) for us this Lenten day, radiant in the life of Judith Snow. May she rest in the peace of the new creation.

+++

During grad school and after I left, I earned money by working in two group homes for adults who had developmental and intellectual disabilities. I had been profoundly moved by the writing of Jean Vanier, specifically, “Becoming Human”. I completed a diploma in the field of social work pertaining to people with such challenges. During that time I crossed paths with an unforgettable woman named Judith Snow. She was an incredible advocate for people living with profound disabilities, especially those who couldn’t use words to communicate. She herself was born with a type of dystrophy that left her quadraplegic and very tiny her entire life. She was incredible, intuitive, brilliant…a force. While she extremely intelligent, because of her physical limitations and the era she was born in she grew up with the unique experience of being surrounded by other children who were profoundly intellectually disabled. She was a keen observer and dedicated herself to learning how to communicate her silent peers. She took me under her wing for which I am so grateful. (Here’s her bio from when she had an art exhibit at Canada’s premier museum: https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/whos-drawing-the-lines-the-journey-of-judith-snow). Sadly she passed away suddenly a few years ago. Huge loss to this world!

From Judith I learned (or at least she tried to teach me) soulishness. I don’t know how to call it. It’s that kind of uncomfortable silent being with another until you “get”one another deeply without talking. She taught me to really feel in my bones the lie of utilitarianism in determining the value of a life. I understood through the people she introduced me to what Vanier was speaking of; I learned the inherent worth and dignity of every life as a bearer of God’s image. These people were heralds of light in this world that is too quick to discard and objectify others

This morning I came across this reflection from B16 that I thought encapsulated the truth of our identity in this vein.

Pope Benedict:
The Enlightenment was sated with demands for morality. It sought to reduce religion to morality. But morality was even further reduced—this time to utilitarianism, to the concept of human well-being. Morality was the measure of the useful, and immorality, accordingly, of the foolish. The definitive and decisive factor for the individual, and in particular for his well-being and happiness, was not feeling good, but being good. Man is not made greater by a promise of autonomy, but smaller, for he is truly himself only when he transcends himself. He belongs more truly to himself when he belongs to God than when he wants to belong only to himself. Morality cannot mean that we ourselves determine what seems useful to us and to the world; on the contrary, it must be a listening to the words of God in the words of creation. We must not and we may not adjust creation to our own liking so that it will be serviceable to us, for in that way we destroy the world and ourselves with it—we have experienced this in our own day. To listen to the words of God means to conform ourselves to God. When we become conformable to him, creation continues to be good and we ourselves become good. The Lord himself has come to meet us and his commandment is simple: that we conform ourselves to the truth. It is his commandment that we correspond with the love he has offered us, and all his commandments are but signposts directing us to the secret of love and so to the foundation of truth. Morality lives thus from the mystery, from the manifestation, of the love of Jesus Christ. When it is separated from this mystery, it becomes fanatical and narrow. When it loses its relationship with this mystery, it becomes just a compulsion in man; and how inhuman morality can become when it is just a compulsion to force hope on the world—of that, too, we have had ample experience in our day. From: Homily for May 16, 1985, in Ordinariatskorrespondenz, no. 15, 1985

Disability is not the last word on life

[still a busy week that will be tough for writing, but I felt moved to share this video]

How eloquent are your words for us today, Lord of life and hope! Every human limitation is ransomed and redeemed in you. Thanks to you, disability is not the last word on life. Love is the last word; it is your love that gives meaning to life. Help us to turn our hearts to you; help us to recognize your face shining in every human creature, however tried by toil, hardship and suffering. Make us understand that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” — St. John Paul II

“Still, at a cultural level there are still expressions that offend the dignity of the person and that maintain a false concept of life. An often narcissistic and utilitarian view, unfortunately, increasingly leads to the consideration of people with disabilities as marginal, without seeing in them the multifaceted human and spiritual wealth that they possess. There is still a strong attitude of rejection of this condition in the collective mentality, as though it prevented the individual from being happy and self-fulfilled. Proof of this is the eugenic tendency to eliminate the unborn child that shows some form of imperfection. In fact, we all know many people who, even in their fragility and with great effort, have found the way to live a good life and richly meaningful life.” — Pope Francis

Un-mute this video it as it begins:

“Well done,” laity at Calvary

{I will likely pause for posting for a few days — hopefully resuming next weekend.}

[Here is a sprawling journal entry I wrote late one night last weekend]

The path of the lay faithful [since Vatican II] has not been without its difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

This last week a friend of mine, who had gone to the “New York Encounter” (an annual three-day public cultural event in the heart of New York City, offering opportunities for education, dialogue, and friendship inspired by the work of Father Luigi Giussani), shared with me a video of an interview at the event with Dr. Michael J. Brescia, co-founder and executive medical director of Calvary Hospital in New York City.

Wow.

I used it in class last week at the seminary. We were discussing the ways in which the laity exercise their baptismal sharing in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly offices by carrying out their core mission of consecrating the world to God in a secular key. We discussed the above quote from St. John Paul II, focusing on some of the odder effects of modernity’s sharp separation of faith and life. While for many people of nominal faith it means assimilation, subordinating faith to dominant cultural values, for devout Christians the “split” becomes a deep ambivalence, or even antipathy, toward robust engagement in the temporal/worldly/secular dimensions of life. The latter is, to me, the saddest, as it is devout men and women who should be running into the midst of the world to season it with salty faith.

A young man who came to speak with me last year told me that the spirituality he had been formed in while serving in a popular campus ministry movement had made him lose his lifelong passion to be [an architect], because “it suddenly seemed so worldly and not compatible with a serious prayer life and being radical in my faith. Not being in church work just feels like I’m settling for sub-par holiness.” Two hours later, I finally stopped talking.

Vatican II captured succinctly this grave problem,

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. They are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.

The late Francis Cardinal George also made this point, when he said in a lecture on Vatican II, “We have allowed a missionary Council to be domesticated. The greatest failure of the post-Vatican II Church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially, on faith’s terms.”

One of the seminarians said he thought the laity should not be pressed to imagine “the holy” as narrowly confined to explicitly churchy-religious activities. Rather, as their vocational center of gravity is “in each and in all of the secular professions and activities; in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven” (Lumen Gentium), they should feel spiritually at home seeking God amid the world’s joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. He added that he would want to encourage lay men and women who feel fired up with faith to simply keep “doing what they’re doing” in the world, but in a manner imbued by the Gospel of Jesus, shaped by faith, hope and love.

The lay Holy of Holies, their inner sanctum, is located in the trenches along the front lines of the Church Militant (CCC#899), embedded deep in the midst of the world, in marriage and family, culture and politics, finance and education, art and science, law and business, military and agriculture, etc. Yes, it’s risky business for those tasked by God with planting His Kingdom outposts in the midst of a fallen world ravaged by sin and death. Yup, it’s hard as hell to live on earth as it is in heaven.

Striving to live so as to hear God say to them on the Last Day, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23), the priestly laity labor to bring all things, from quark to cosmos, person to planet, under the sway of God’s Kingdom. This is what it means to consecrate the world to God, to bring every aspect of our existence into harmony with Him, from moment to moment. To bring all under the royal influence of divine love is to quarry materials for a new creation, turning stones into bread, water into wine and mammon into mercy, offering all of these up — along with our very bodies (Rom. 12:1) — as a living sacrifice to God Most High.

I mean, it’s absolutely mind-blowing to realize that the water, stones, quasars, along with all life on earth (Is. 11:6-11) or anywhere else — offered by us in the Mass — will pass over into the new creation by way of the human Heart of God, Jesus Christ, and by the holy lives of “the just” who are joined to Jesus as His Body. As the Catechism #1047, 50 says,

Having completed the work God called them to do in this world, [the just] 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.

The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

I have read that hundreds of times, and I never cease to be overwhelmed by its immensity. My puny life, lived in the labors of love, drenches creation in the Fountain of Immortality. In the next world, I hope, I can see all that came in with me. 💥

If the lay faithful fail to consecrate the world in this way, fail to enter the heart of the world to consecrate, and be thoroughly secular in God’s way, the secular world will be thoroughly desecrated, lost to eternity. God has made Christians the “soul of the world,” and so we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the world turns soulless and damnable. To curse that dark world is to curse ourselves.

Put another way — the Church exists to make relics of matter, feasts of time, sanctuaries of space, temples of bodies, sacrifices of praise, a Kingdom of cities, earth into heaven and heaven into earth, drenching all things in the Speech of God roaring from the the Cross (Amos 1:2; Mark 15:37; 1 Cor. 1:18). Yes, the Church exists to make saints, saints who return to God all that God once placed under their dominion, exercised thus:

Fr. Mychal Judge, carried by those he died serving on the front lines, 9/11/2001

So, I had my class watch about 4 minutes of this interview with Dr. Brescia as he described to an audience of medical professionals how to approach working with patients. In it, he specifically refers to Calvary’s hospital policy regarding the non-use of restraints on patients, and shares a profound story about a man who had been in a Nazi concentration camp and bore on his arm the tattooed numbers given to all camp inmates. After watching the video, I asked the class to tell me how Brescia, in his secular genius as a medical professional, exercised his priestly, prophetic and kingly offices. Their responses were remarkable.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen would certainly agree, Calvary Hospital is well named:

The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap … He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the world and make Christ known.

Here is the video (up to 41:40). I want to kiss his feet…

Aaron Feis, Requiescat in pace

“They are worthy of special consideration and honor, those Christians who, following in the footsteps and teachings of the Lord Jesus, have voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others and have persevered until death in this regard.” — Pope Francis

[Dioceses] especially should be attentive to recognizing among their members the younger men and women of those Churches who have given witness to holiness in [everyday secular conditions and the married state] and who can be an example for others, so that, if the case calls for it, they might propose them to be beatified and canonized

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II