Feast of the Vulnerability of God

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How could I let this Feast pass by silently?

Today is the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This solemnity is always celebrated the Friday after the solemnity of Corpus Christi, which is the final post-Easter “dogmatic feast” that honors the paschal gift of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. On Trinity Sunday we honored the stunning revelation given to us in Jesus: Israel’s “one God” is one in three divine Persons. Like husband and wife, God is one, not solitary. On Corpus Christ we honored a stupefying gift from the Trinity: being permitted to ingest (!) the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, and so receive into our own humanity a full share in divine life. Today, June 23, the church offers us an executive ‘festal’ summary of the whole paschal mystery by presenting in a single image the source and goal of the entire economy of creation and redemption: the unbreakable union of divine and human love forged in the Heart of Jesus.

The divine-human Heart of Jesus reveals both the core identity of God and the core identity of man: oblative (self-giving, agape) and possessive (uniting, eros) love. Love is defined in the Christian tradition as willing the good of the other in accord with the divine will, as well as the uniting of two lovers in the exchange of their mutual self-gift one to the other. The biblical covenant formula contains all of these dimensions of love, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Or as the Song of Songs 2:16 has it, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”

Love is neither wholly other-centered giving nor wholly self-centered receiving, but both, with the center of gravity being found in other-centered giving. This is what Jesus means when He commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” i.e. love your neighbor as “another you” so that in loving neighbor you are loving yourself. And for Jesus, neighbor refers to every human being without exception. I would say this is why He makes forgiveness and enemy-love the sine qua non of love since enemies are those we would most naturally exclude from the ambit of charity that demands universal solidarity. This, Jesus says, is how God deals with humanity, His enemy.

Put another way, love is meant to contain a mutuality. In the absence of this mutuality, you have slavery, with one taking from the other without reciprocating the gift. I know a married couple in which the husband, who is clearly a raging narcissist (of the personality disorder kind), has broken down the personality and spirit of his wife over the years with his voracious appetite for attention, devotion and service. But he responds to her only with bitterness and manipulation. It’s painful beyond words to watch, is the antithesis to authentic love in the divine image and the epitome of the primal curse of sin in Genesis 3:16: “He shall rule over you.”

This is why the God who “loved us first” (1 John 4:19) commands that we love Him. Not because He is needy or a narcissist, but because the very nature of love demands reciprocity. God in fact, metaphysically speaking, does not need us at all. He is purely actualized in every way and cannot become more or less than He is from all eternity. God is self-subsistent, without origin or terminus. But because as Trinity God is love in His essence, an eternal act of Threefold mutuality of giving and receiving, when He creates us out of pure love in His image and likeness, He invites us into this eternal Triune exchange and awaits our return to Him in love. This is not due to a lack in God, but rather the perfection of His nature as love which gives and receives. So St. Maximus the Confessor can make that stunning statement I so often quote:

Those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

God longs for us to accept the gift of His unconditionally offered, freely given love and desires for us to respond in kind by a life obedient to the demands of love (the commandments, love of neighbor) and by a total gift of ourselves back to Him that leads to a divine-human union much like that of marriage and friendship. But note that God acts first, He takes the first step, puts Himself “out there” first, awaiting our free response; or free rejection. There is a profound vulnerability, great risk in God’s act of creating us in love and awaiting our free response of love. In fact, the world vulnerable, from the Latin vulnerare, which means “to wound, hurt or injure,” i.e. that God in creating us risked being wounded by us. Indeed, Isaiah 53 is this.

Here is where the image of the Sacred Heart offers such power as a language of love. The image of the Heart, especially as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in her visions of Jesus, shows the divine-human Heart of Jesus lacerated by the signs of the Passion. In other words, His Sacred Heart betrays the bitter signs of human rejection of His gift offered, sings of the refusal of love’s mutuality. But — what a great mystery! — out from the center of that wounded Heart rises a raging fire, the unquenchable love of God for humanity that burns even and especially in the face of our rejection. The words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary beautifully witness to this:

Behold this Heart, which has loved men so much that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify to them its love; and in return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude.

A number of years ago, on my 8-day Ignatian retreat, my retreat director asked me to sit in front of a statue of the Sacred Heart for an extended period of time.  I did and it was profound. As I never had before, I sensed the purity and innocence of divine love — offered to us, it seemed to me, like a child who opens herself trustingly up to an adult with a special gift she has created, only to discover the adult turns on her, abuses her and utterly rejects her tender gift of love. For whatever reason, the image of that small child’s pained expression in the face of rejection — crushed, bewildered — seemed to be that of Jesus offering His Heart to me. In fact, as I prayed more there was a scene from the movie, The Passion of the Christ, that suddenly filled my heart with overwhelming emotion. The scene during the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas when, right after He joyfully reveals His identity as the Son of Israel’s God, they, His beloved chosen, slap Him, spit on Him, and a tear falls down His cheek. It was crushing to see this image as I prayed before the statue. It matched perfectly that image of the purity and innocent trust of the little girl’s face as her gift was rejected. I must show it here for you to imagine with me:

But as I continued to pray through this, there also seemed to be this difference between God and the little girl — I sensed how God is omnipotent and could in a word annihilate the entire cosmos if He willed. Yet that love, the unfathomable innocence of that love (compassion?) restrains Him as He returns trustingly again and again to us seeking out our loving response to His offer of total self-gift.

Above all in the Holy Eucharist.

That’s today’s Feast, the Feast of God’s unfathomable, tender and merciful love.

Rejoice, respond and reciprocate to Him and to your worst enemy.

Amen.

Alone

Monastery church

Final stretch of road I drove to the monastery

[I will break my break today by posting one from my retreat. BTW, loved the comments:) Will reply next week. Pax]

I’m alone.

A retreat I have awaited for months. A Trappist monastery in eastern Iowa.

The silence. So rich, full of meaning. It is a capacity, a space to receive. More, a power of awareness. Attentiveness to the moment. The ubiquity of sacrament. God is with us, in Him we live and move and have our being. Hearing becomes more refined and what was before mere “background” is now foreground. The small is great, the quiet is loud, the insignificant signs.

I arrived in my car with Louisiana plates, parked under the Norway spruce and made it in time for supper. A silent meal. Simple. Stark.

Vespers. As the monks chanted the psalms a wild chorus of house sparrows chirped outside the church. This blend of strange, unplanned harmonies and rhythms — chant and chirp — made me think of St. Maximus the Confessor’s description of man as “priest of nature.” We give intelligent voice, in praise and thanksgiving to the Creator, on behalf of all creation. I thought of Romans 12:1 and its description of our priestly action as “rational worship” (logikēn latreian). We alone of all creatures on earth can clothe our worship in language and so echo back to God the Word He spoke in the beginning. In us, “let there be” becomes “let it be.” Genesis 1:3 becomes Luke 1:38. Light becomes life. The Word spoken in the beginning is made flesh in the fullness of time.

I also thought of the preface to the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer (in the Mass):

And so, in your presence are countless hosts of Angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy…

If we are thus attentive throughout our days of work and rest, all that we hear, see, touch, taste and smell is brought into the temple of our bodies and readied as material for the Great Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered, co-mingled with the bread, wine and alms to be lifted aloft to the Creator. Readied for Consecration by our daily prayer, by our daily acts of virtue, by our daily repentance. By our “prayers, works, joys and sufferings.” The world that I take in every day has the potential to be re-created, redeemed within me precisely because I am a dwelling place of God, a locus of sacrificial offering, a nexus of eternity and time ambling about on this tiny plot of land floating in a vast universe. In us, when we live life thus, God casts fire into all things. In us the cosmos becomes one great burning bush afire with divine love, co-extensive with the Risen Body of Jesus.

“Full, conscious and active participation” in liturgy is the labor of logikēn latreianan action of our common priesthood that stitches together heaven and earth in Christ in each moment we live the act of bodily offering. This participation at Mass means not primarily that we join in the singing, movements and responses of the Mass (though it is that), but that we fully engage the priesthood of Jesus that we are at every moment of our lives, bringing it to perfection in the Holy Mass.

I went to bed last night with my screened window and curtain open. No car sounds, no outdoor lighting. Just stars, crickets, a catbird at sunset, a lonely nighthawk at 3:15 a.m. when I awoke for Vigils, a steady breeze from the northwest that whispered through the mesh of the screen. I asked St. Elijah to pray for me to listen to the Voice.

And I could smell the white pine sap. They must have pruned.

I rose for Vigils at 3:15 a.m. Dark. Quiet split the night. One spotlight shone down from the high ceiling above the lectern. And the flame of the sanctuary lamp flickered. No organ, just human voices. And that nighthawk. Psalms were a cappella, recto tono. Echoing softly in the stone church. Slight dissonances in their voices drew me in. An aging community of men, and many of the monks are bent over, using a cane or walker. If I were called to be a monk, I would be a Trappist. How many thousands of times these men have entered the Abbey church before dawn to sanctify the night with the divine Word? The church, unadorned, rough, real, breathed their prayer in and out.

Or so it seemed.

The Guest Master told me today the architect back in the 1800’s who inspired this Abbey’s neo-Gothic architecture once said, “The severity of Christian architecture is opposed to all deception. We should never make a building erected to God appear better than it is by artificial means. It is better to do a little substantially and consistently with the truth, than to produce a great but fictitious effect.” That’s it! That’s why I love Trappist monasteries as my place of retreat from the world, because my retreat is not from, but into reality. It’s why I leave every retreat with them more ready for life in the world. A retreat is poor, artificial, fictitious, un-truthful when it makes you dread returning to life. When I end my days at these retreats I feel sent. I come fleeing but return running.

So many reasons this space inspires this in me. But today what struck me was this. These men, they are poor, live so simply, unpretentiously in their manner of living. There is no ego-fest allowed, no cult of personality. Me is always inverted to We. A Guest Master several years ago told me that those few Trappists who may have become well-known outside the monastery for their work, like Merton or Pennington, in the monastery wear the same habit, chant the same psalms, obey the same rule, engage in the same labor as all others. Monastic life levels for the sake of charity, unity, the common good. Yet when I go to confession to a monk, the color of the personalty is rich, as is the depth and profundity of what I receive! 30 years of going to Trappist monasteries around the country, I have found more healing balm here than anywhere else as they school me each retreat in the self-renunciation of love — the supreme recipe for healing.

All of this is a marvelous critique of portions of our American ecclesial culture.

A time ago, the Guest Master shared with me at my request his vocation story. Remarkable. This point he made caught me: “When I entered here years ago, I was filled with consolations. On a sustained God-high. It was all so wonderful and necessary to secure my vocation. But the day I professed my solemn vows — the day — it all vanished. The Abbot, so wise, said to me: ‘God has removed those consolations from you so that those who come here weary from the world might find refreshment. This is the heart of our monastic vocation, to live Philippians 2:5-11. Christ emptied Himself to fill us, He calls us to empty ourselves to fill others.’ Once I saw this, I was grateful to know this was my vocation. It was easy to bear.”

The Guest Master then said to me, “Your being a husband and a father is the same. The same exchange.”

!

Today’s readings at Mass, amazingly, contained this line from 2 Cor. 8:9:

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Mashley’s Promise

So yet another non-post post. Before I head out of town on a road trip, I was able to prevail on my daughter to allow me to post her and Ashley’s new music video here, even though they decided not to publish it on their YouTube channel because the audio was a bit off. But I think it’s practically perfect in every way, in my absolutely unbiased opinion. Especially their devised harmonies. It’s a cover of the Radiohead song I wrote about on June 11, I Promise. Makes me love the song even more.

Maria features piano for the first time. Enjoy!

Tom Neal, Layman Promoter

I interrupt this blogging break for a shameless service announcement.

I will be offering in July and August a presentation series called Called, Formed and Sent here in New Orleans at the Seminary with a dear friend and colleague of mine, the almost-D.Min. Susie Veters, on the lay vocation.

THE LAY VOCATION!

I am excited about it! It ‘s an opportunity to feature publicly Susie’s and my unbridled passion for the beauty and dignity of the vocation and mission of the laity to build up the Body of Christ and consecrate the world to God.

Here is the flyer and registration info is here.

Thank you for spreading the word!

Yep, the video:

Resume in July

After taking a hard look at my schedule this past weekend, it became clear that I need to take an intentional 3 week break to attend to lots of large commitments I have coming up. I will resume in July.

Thank you for reading my work and, for those who do, responding to it. I never take that for granted.

Pray for me and I for thee. God bless you abundantly.

Sunset on June 10 near our home. #beautywins

 

I promise

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My oldest daughter Maria introduced me to the band Radiohead two years ago with her Mashley cover of No Surprises. Recently, she and Ashley went to their concert in New Orleans. Loved them. I’ve not listened to much of their music, but all I have heard I have liked.

Radiohead re-released a 20 year old song about a week or so ago. It’s called, I Promise. Eerie and haunting. According to a number of articles I read, the lyrics consider the dis-ease of disconnection and isolation that increasingly dominates our hyper-mobile and hyper-technological society. The surrealist music video reminds me of Eleanor Rigby — “all the lonely people.” Throughout the song, the thread that binds together a seemingly aimless wandering of angst is the unchanging refrain, “I promise.”

As I listened to it throughout the week, I thought quite a bit about promises.

Promises anchor us in the storm, keep us from being set adrift, losing our inner compass and stability. Baptismal promises, marital promises, ordination promises, professional promises. Promises manifest and confirm your character, forge and focus your deepest commitments. My grandfather wrote me once, “Tommy, always be a man of your word. If you don’t have your word, you’ve nothing to offer. Being true to your word in the face of resistance is the highest act of courage. Without this greatness is impossible. Words kept channel swift and powerful waters into a deep river that cuts rock, broken words diffuse into a shallow and murky swamp that covers rock with mud.” The Scriptures are filled with promises offered, promises kept and promises broken. God is above all true to His promises, true to His Name, a God of His Word — “Faithful and True” (Rev. 19:11).

The word promise comes from the Latin pro- “before” and mittere “to release, let go; send, throw.” So, in a sense, it means to “throw yourself” into the future. A future uncertain, indefinite, unknown. All promises are future oriented, throw caution to the wind in a reckless act of hope. Hope in God alone makes possible absolute and unconditional promises, as the martyrs testify eloquently. “Love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev. 12:11).

Last October on our 21st wedding anniversary, Patti and I spent an evening on the balcony of our hotel room sipping Chianti and remembering many of the big events in our marriage and family life. Patti said, “Can you imagine if we knew all that the words “I promise to be…’ implied? Oh my gosh. All that’s happened since that day? I guess that’s why the promises include ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health all the days of my life.’ Catch all. So you really do know you’re in for a lot!” I said, “I guess that’s also why they say that the eighth sacrament is ignorance! If we knew up front all that the other seven sacraments commit us to, we’d probably run! When you’re Catholic, you can’t ever say ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ If it’s a sacrament, it’s the cross, and so you did.”

Then she sang a line from Covenant Hymn (which she also sang at our wedding):

Whatever you dream, I am with you, when stars call your name in the night. Though shadows and mist cloud the future, together we bear there a light. Like Abram and Sarah we stand, with only a promise in hand. But lead where you dream: I will follow. To dream with you is my delight.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, when St. Thomas More’s daughter Margaret was trying to convince him to dissemble and take the Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, he said to her: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” St. Thomas knew baptismal promises bound Him unconditionally to God’s Kingdom, and that these were the ground of every other promise. He said just before he was beheaded, “I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”

When our first child was born, an “old salt” friend who had three sons of his own told me to never make a promise to my children that I couldn’t keep. Small or great. And if you break a promise, he said, make amends and do penance for them to see you take them dead seriously. Penance proportionate to the gravity of the promise. He said, “They need to get from you that they can count on you. Everything else in your life can fall apart, you can lose your job or even, God forbid, your health. Things won’t always go your way. But if you promise them you will always do your best, trust God, love Patti in the worst conditions and put them first over yourself, and then do it, they will see everything is going to be okay. Your promises are your children’s safe zone. Die before you break them.”

[Verse 1]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise

[Verse 2]
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Verse 3]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Outro]
I won’t run away no more, I promise

Love, love, love

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. — Catechism of the Catholic Church

I don’t have much time to seriously write, but I had to share this.

First, tomorrow is the solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. It is a “dogmatic feast,” celebrating the epicenter of Christian faith that was fully disclosed in the mysteries of Holy Week and Easter season. God is three Persons, one God. Three whos and one what, as they used to say in the old catechism. A mystery, meaning not a puzzle to be solved or an illogical assertion to be blindly accepted, but a truth so excessive that the mind is always surpassed when that truth is revealed. Like Niagara Falls. But because we are made in His image, we are able, in an infinite trajectory of growth, to know that mystery. And divine mystery, who God is, can only be made known by God. God must freely choose to make Himself known. Mystery cannot be deduced, only encountered and received. And in the mystery of the Trinity, the Son reveals the Father who sent Him, and the Spirit reveals the Son who sent Him.

Here’s what’s most amazing to me: the concrete circumstances in which God revealed Himself.

The eternal Son of the Father was fully revealed in His death, resurrection and ascension, and the Spirit was made known last Sunday at Pentecost. The mystery of God was disclosed under the form of self-emptying Gift. Divine mystery was made known not as an abstract theorem that we can contemplate and analyze at a safe distance, but was revealed to us fully immersed in the total mess and majesty of human life. In Jesus. In fact, we can say that the pinpoint laser of divine revelation took place in the stripped naked, brutalized, fly-covered body of the eternal Word who, from the cross, spoke to His Father of us and breathed out His Spirit on us as He died.

Faint.

When some asks, “What is God like?”, the Christian points wordlessly to the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) and says, “Like that.” St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, looking at the cross, cried out in prayer: O mes Trois! “O my Three!” See, the Father handing over His Son, and receiving the Son’s self-offering for us through the eternal Spirit. God with us. God for us.

I met a priest very recently, whom I will write more about another time. He graciously gave me permission to share his story that he confided to me. In short, he suffered for several years from a series of terrible illnesses, from which he has now fully recovered. During those years, he said, he passed through what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the spirit.” He said,

During those years as I was physically debilitated, God chose to pass my soul through His love. I don’t know how else to say it. I can testify to you under solemn oath that God is a consuming fire. I know it with absolute certitude. It’s impossible to describe. The love, that is. His love. So selfless. Selfless in a way we cannot even imagine. Honestly. Not even imagine. On the cross He suffered our loveless, wretched, hateful, apathetic, bored, egocentric cruelty with absolute love that caused Him suffering we could never imagine. He showed me just a flicker of the furnace He is, larger than the universe, and asked me to allow Him to transform me to become that flicker. That is the Trinity. The infinite furnace of selfless love. So tender and pure. I can tell you, even though I really can’t because it’s beyond any word, that the Trinity is simply this: total, pure, selfless, infinite loving. A verb of loving, not a noun. Everywhere you go in creation, you can’t escape it. Everything is filled with that love. But because we are petty and small and selfish and consumed with ourselves, we can’t see it or feel it. But if we allow just a flicker of His love to purify this, we would see. You can’t imagine, Tom. We would be happy for every hardship and suffering and challenge of life, because they allow us to become that love even more. I tell my brother priests when they have hard times or illness, this is a gift, let God use it. When God draws you into Himself, it’s total selflessness. Love, love, love. I wish I could put into that word “love” the meaning I experienced in those years. I’m almost afraid to use it for fear of cheapening it. I want to say: No! You don’t understand. You have to know it first hand.