Stop, look, listen

[re-post 2013 with addition of fresh Pope Francis material. Intermittent posts until Saturday, May 26 as I begin a crazy stretch!]

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” ― Leo Tolstoy

A friend of mine who is a musician and works as an administrator at a college told me that when she gets stressed, or feels constricted by the press of deadlines or angry faculty, she slips out back into a small grassy area with her guitar and plays/sings for a few minutes before returning to her office. She said, “It’s a game-changer. Art billows the sails of my soul so I keep joy in my work.”

Such an artist.

Sometimes I feel this is becoming the only message I want to teach: “Stop! Look! Listen!” often enough to be present to the present moment.

The now alone is where God dwells, where life is lived, love is found (and lost), and where all joys finds a home. In so many ways, our culture of distraction smothers our contemplative capacity to receive reality at the “speed of life,” which yields its riches only to those who wait. In the words of St. Teresa, la paciencia todo lo alcanza, “patience obtains all.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! — 2 Cor. 6:2

Pope Francis said this all so eloquently in the new documentary on him:

We live with the accelerator down from morning to night. This ruins mental health, spiritual health, and physical health. More so: it affects and destroys the family, and therefore society. “On the seventh day, He rested.” What the Jews followed and still observe, was to consider the Sabbath as holy. On Saturday you rest. One day of the week, that’s the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all these things. We are not machines!

Like the monks, we must choose to pause from the busy labors and activities of life, in rhythmic patterns, to transition into the Sabbath of play, song, dance, praise and thanksgiving. Making time to simply receive and lift up each moment restores wonder.

When I was on an 8-day silent retreat back in 2012, my 80-something year old spiritual director asked me to spend a whole day at the Omaha Zoo. He had me read Matthew 6:26-34 while I was there, which begins with these words:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

He said, “Ask God to let nature teach you as you spend that day.”

Biggest lesson learned? Linger longer over the many small things in the world, like Solomon the Wise:

Four things on earth are small,
yet they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people without strength,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people without power,
yet they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard can be grasped in the hand,
yet it is found in kings’ palaces. — Proverbs 30:24-28

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.” — St. Maximus the Confessor

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. in their hospice, one of the AIDS patients we served once said to one of the Sisters, “Where do you people come from?”

She had been overwhelmed by the new “economy” she experienced at Gift of Peace, which, in her words, “spit in the face of the law of the street — ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.” She said, “All my life, anytime anyone did anything nice for me, they always wanted something back. You didn’t give unless you wanted to take. This is the first place I’ve been where they do something nice, but don’t want something back.”

She was especially amazed that the Sisters and volunteers were able to ignore her initial expressions of bitter ingratitude and anger, and continue to care for her with kindness and patience.

After I heard her observation, I meditated on just how radical the implications of what she said were if that “economy” was lived out in every detail of Christian life. What a strange form of justice would emerge! To this effect, Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-36 are indeed mind-bending:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It seems, then, that Jesus touts mercy as the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mercy, which is love encountering evil, brokenness, sin, death, and overcoming it.

Where might we even start implementing such an impossible demand? Well, by actively letting go of the need to be thanked, acknowledged or praised for the good we do. By working on refining our intention — the why of your action — from “what’s in it for me, on my terms” to “what is for God’s greater glory,” while trusting in the supremacy of God’s manner, in the End, of rewarding good and dealing with evil.

Sounds lofty and glorious in speech, but translating it into everyday actions is an entirely different experience. Brutally hard, as the present economy is infected by the logic of sin.

In service to purifying their intention, St. John of the Cross counseled his fellow Religious to frequently seek out opportunities to do kindnesses to those notorious for ingratitude. Why? Yes, to help purify their intention, shifting the center of gravity from the needy ego to the God-neighbor.

But also it was to imitate God in offering the unworthy and ungrateful an opportunity to discover in us a new way of being human, pattered after God’s economy of salvation. In other words, by imitating God in this way, we offer others the invitation to be saved.

By looking at us, they can say: “Oh, that’s why I would want to be saved! To be like him, like her!”

Or, even better, maybe I could say that by choosing to do good to those who cannot, or will not do good to us in return, we allow ourselves to be saved by the merciful Father.

And being saved means being made capable of loving as God loves, with God’s love, plain and simple.

While we will always find reasonable reasons for not acting in such a way to this or that nasty, ungrateful person, faith challenges us to risk each day a new way of seeing the world, a new way of acting toward others that makes mercy the new normal. The cognitive dissonance this risk  causes should remind us that mercy is indeed as odd a form of justice as a crucified God is an odd manner of wielding divine omnipotence.

The woman at Gift of Peace ended up being baptized. Why? She said, “if your Jesus is anything like these women, I want to know Him.”

Yeah, that.

A Sacrament of sex

[originally posted in 2016]

Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. – Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia

I’d like to share today a song by the group, Penny and Sparrow. The song, Duet, is sung by lead singer Andy Baxter and a guest artist named Hannah Huston. Our friend, Austin Ashcraft, introduced it to Patti and me last winter and we both loved it.

The song brings into close proximity sexual intimacy and the daily “labor of love” in marital and family. The song brilliantly reveals how these two seemingly contrasting aspects of marriage actually intensify one another. I’ll share below what I wrote later that night in my journal after he shared the song with us.


I believe the most creative tension in marriage is found between erotic-possessive love (I want you) and self-sacrificing love (I am for you). Marriage is a dance between desire and choice, possessing and giving, taking in and pouring out, eros and agape. I burn with passion for my wife and I am beckoned by love to daily die for her.

Two flames, one love.

Erotic sex was created by God to be the servant of marital fidelity, the welding fire that solidifies our lifelong bond. Every sexual act is a marital act, a consummating sign and seal of everything, all-for-you, forever. Which is why every sexual act apart from marriage is a lie, an act of theft, as you give to and take from another the totality you have not yet pledged.

When I married Patti, after God there is no love in all of creation that lays claim on me as does my covenant promise to love her — “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). She is the treasure buried by God in the field of Tallahassee, for which I sold all my possessions to obtain. Beginning with the divine command to “abandon mother and father” and cling to Patti (Gen. 2:24), all other loves in this life, including love for our children, are to be ordered in service to our marital bond.

As more years pass, I can see the deepening significance of sexual intimacy as a sacrament of our God-entwined “everything, all-for-you, forever.” In the context of an enduring covenant, sex is meant to be a graced sign of mutual trust, vulnerability, surrender, gift, unity, an exchange of hearts. “The two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). “Will become” is key, as it’s a progressive journey of one-ing, one had through battles and struggles, embraces and reconciliations, labor and rest, joys and sorrows.

Inscribed by our now 30-year history of friendship, each sexual act entails a love story, enfleshes a mutual knowledge that can never be adequately captured by words. Only by words-made-flesh, as we come to finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s needs, read each other’s faces, forgive each other’s sins before they are committed. My wife knows me more than any other human being — a terror and thrill all at once!

“Adam knew Eve, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). How much more that means now.

Lastly, if this inextricable link between sex and the real day-to-day struggles of covenant love is true, it also means any fantasy that marital sex will be consistently amazing, easy and ecstatic all the time, on demand, must be abandoned. The real sex, grounded in real life and love, is the sex that not only satisfies, but also sanctifies. Is the sex that is sacramental, to the very end.


I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen ’em carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

Our Ascending Gardener

[In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Ascension is celebrated today, which is why I waited until today to write a meditation on this Feast]

Christ’s Ascension means that he belongs entirely to God. He, the Eternal Son, led our human existence into God’s presence, taking with him flesh and blood in a transfigured form. The human being finds room in God; through Christ, the human being was introduced into the very life of God. — Pope Benedict XVI

All things come from God, and all things will return to God. This is an iron law, the great and inexorable movement of all existence, of all history. And in the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is humanity, fashioned by God as priest of the created order, that stands as the pivot-point between the outgoing divine gift of creation and the returning of all things in a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Creator. The final judgment of God on creation, which is another way of expressing the moment of priestly “returning,” weighs heavy on the shoulders of man; on how he stewarded the gift upward (or not) and made creation “new” by his obedience to the will of the Giver.

Of course, the whole narrative of Sacred Scripture reveals man’s “fall,” how humanity catastrophically failed in this high priestly calling. Instead of stewarding the gift upward in obedience, praying, “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory!”, Adam and Eve seized hold of the gift and pulled it downward in disobedience, saying, “For mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory!” Instead of consecrating the world into a Garden filled with glory and life, man desecrated the world into a Graveyard filled with shame and death.

But Sacred Scripture is also the story of God’s rescue plan, His tireless pursuit of man down the ages, calling him back to his original priestly vocation to consecrate the world by the obedience of faith working through love. But humanity, so broken by their ancient rebellion, proved unable to carry out this call faithfully and lift creation out of the Graveyard.

So God himself became man, the Giver became the gift, the Master became the steward, the One who awaited the priestly sacrifice of thanksgiving became the High Priest who Gave Thanks. In order to heal and restore the original vocation of priestly-man, God, overcome with love for creation, obediently suffered desecration, entered the Graveyard, and rose again from the Tomb as the Gardener.

And from the entrance of the open Tomb, He calls to each of us by name, cries out into our tombs, “Rise!” and bids us cleave to Him in His upward, priestly Ascension to the Father. And by filling us with the power of His Holy Spirit, He empowers us to be holy, co-consecrating earth with heaven by cultivating it faithfully, plowing it with the Wood of the Cross He has given each of us to carry.

Thus having consecrated the world as a culture of life and civilization of love, we can at last gather up our sacrifice and sing to God with the Ascending Christ a priestly song as we toil in the Vineyard: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!”

The Ascension is not the exit strategy of Jesus to abandon this broken world for the glories of heavenly bliss, but His completion of what was our task from the very beginning: to receive the gift given in gratitude, and then return it to the Giver by giving it away as gift to the ungrateful.

This is why the Holy Spirit would not come to us until this cycle of giving and returning, descending and ascending was complete. The Spirit comes to restore our priesthood, and to empower us in Christ to co-create the new creation one act of love at a time.

Come Holy Spirit!

…like this…

“How are you?”

Orthodox priest hearing Confession.

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you. — Fr. Henri Nouwen

[re-post 2016]

In the last week or so, I have come across so much pain and struggle in others’ lives. As I reflected on this during my prayer time last evening, I was overcome by a sense of gratitude for the people who entrusted to me their stories of hardship, doubt, fear, pain. And I felt similar gratitude for all those who listen to me. There is such an extraordinary intimacy that develops when someone allows you into their suffering. Such a vulnerability.

I am completely convinced of what a priest therapist friend of mine once said to me:

If you want to know what someone is struggling with, all you have to do is say, ‘How are you?’, mean it, patiently listen, and then the flood gates will fling wide open. If you scratch even a little beneath the surface by lending an ear, you’ll know Thoreau was exactly right when he said, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’

He also said to me,

The real crisis in mental health, in my opinion, is the disappearance of a culture that supports the time and patience required for therapeutic listening. Being heard is very healing. People are so distracted by technology, and have such short attention spans that they don’t make time to just be with someone to listen and talk.

I think the Christian revolution nowadays could simply be taking time to listen to someone, every day. Really listen. You don’t need a degree in psychotherapy to help someone work out their issues. Common sense advice, confidentiality, patient caring. And pray with them. Just an Our Father or Hail Mary. Nothing elaborate.

I’d say well over half the people who come to me for help just needed me to listen with love and attention. No one else will.

Especially parents need to listen to their children, let them talk it out — whatever ‘it’ is. Listening to your child often, especially at night, develops deep bonds of trust that will pay large dividends later in life. The same is true for spouses.

The church should be a community where we learn and practice listening to God and each other. The world should say of us, “See how they listen to one another!”

I believe God’s a helluva good listener and loves to be listened to, if the Bible is any indication. So we’re made in His image, so it all makes sense.

I tell couples or parents, pull out the earbuds, put down the phone, turn off the computer or TV and just talk. Walk and talk, it’s a great combo.

God wants to heal us, but only through others. Like Augustine’s description of heaven as “one Christ loving himself,” we live heaven now when we let Jesus love others through us and let Jesus love us through others. God is tricky — everything he does is intended to bring us together.

Next time you ask someone, “How are you?”, and mean it, get ready to meet Jesus.

Based on the prayer, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

True greatness

“You received without payment; give without payment.” — Matthew 10:8

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” — Mother Teresa

As a meditation on yesterday’s theme of inspiration and encouragement, I wanted to share this video which I originally included in yesterday’s re-post back when it first appeared in 2017.

This is true greatness, loving the world into the new creation one intentional act of kindness at a time.