I will again not be able to post through at least Friday.
[this is a re-post from 2014]
Years ago when I did chaplaincy work in a nursing home in Connecticut, there was a woman named Marge I would visit every weekend and bring Communion to. She was bed ridden, and depressed. Alienated from her children. She said she felt alone and useless, like an unwanted burden. It was so painful to witness, and as a newbie in that world I had no idea how to practically help her.
For the first weeks, I just listened to her. But one day, I felt inspired to share with her a Russian proverb I had learned from some parishioners at my dad’s Orthodox church: “Old age is for prayer.” The Siberian woman who first shared it with me added,
When you’re young, life is busy busy, and you have difficulty finding time for prayer. But when you’re my age, God frees you so you can dedicate great time to prayer, and season it with your aches and pains. These 5 words [old age is for prayer] are like the 5 stones David went against Goliath with. We elders may seem frail, but in God’s eyes we are mighty. Elders hold up the world.
I began to ask Marge to pray for a host of specific intentions every visit, and then would report on the intentions each time I returned. One time, I said (according to my journal),
By praying you carry people to God who can’t carry themselves. I know you’re sad because you feel you’ve been dropped by your children, and because you now need us to carry you. But how many times in life did you pick other people up and carry them? [she said, “Lots.”] Would you want them to feel useless because they needed you? [she shook her head]
Your body is frail now, but God has given you a powerful spirit so you can lift others up in prayer. You’re lifting me up for sure! Giving into depression is giving up on your spirit’s power to lift up. Sometimes in life our call is to carry others in love, but other times it’s to be carried in humility. Mostly, it’s both, and both make the world better.
It was amazing the positive effect this idea had on her over time. Before I moved away, I went to say goodbye to her. She said with great emotion, “Thank you for carrying me, son.” I said, with equal emotion, “Same. In heaven, you’ll see just how many people you helped, Marge.”
Almighty ever-living God,
who when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you. — Opening Collect for today’s Mass
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with this day we are ushered into the unhappily named liturgical season of Ordinary Time. The English word “ordinary” comes from the Latin ordinalis, a word meaning “an order of succession.” Ordinary, therefore, does not here mean “plain,” but days of counting after the Feast of Epiphany and then again after the Feast of Pentecost. It’s an extended opportunity to contemplate and realize the impact of the Incarnation and Pentecost on the world. In other words, Ordinary time is life in the aftermath of God’s definitive entry into history.
During Ordinary liturgical days, the major focus of the Scripture readings is on the three year public preaching-teaching-healing ministry of Jesus, as He inaugurates the coming of the Kingdom of God into history. If I could give a name to this season that better translates this idea, I’d call it Time in the Aftermath.
Which is why I am not on the liturgical committee that names seasons.
The Sacrament of Baptism is our own personal immersion into that Time in the Aftermath, our insertion into the volatile intersections of time-eternity, finite-infinite, heaven-earth, Creator-creation. In other words, into Jesus Christ. Baptism made me into a new creation, planting me as an immortal seed, freshly fallen from the Tree of the Cross, into the barren wasteland of a fallen world. Or said otherwise, Baptism established me as a fresh outpost of God’s Kingdom behind enemy lines, with a mission to knead into the culture of death the leaven of Life.
How? By a life of obedience to God’s mind and will, above all by imitating Christ who is God’s Mind-made-flesh. No, it’s even more intense than that: by allowing Christ’s mind into my own, allowing Him to take my “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). In Baptism, my thoughts and words are consecrated and so are no longer my own.
Allowing Christ’s mind to penetrate, shape, transform and inhabit my own mind is the end-game of prayer. Especially prayer with Sacred Scripture. Praying God’s Word is granting Christ permission to think in me, with me and through me in real-time, living color.
I wrote in my journal January 1, “My goal in the new year is to better allow Christ to think out His plan for me with me, not simply acting like a hollow cipher that has nothing to add to that plan, but creatively contributing. O Lord, I know your plan includes my contribution, that you want me to surprise you with something you cannot do without me. Something beautiful. May my Morning Offering be filled with the giddy joy of a child who wants to surprise his parent with the simple gifts he has made!”
As I was praying on this idea, another related thought occurred to me. This “unity of mind” not simply a bilateral deal, i.e. me and Jesus. It’s multilateral, i.e. us and Jesus. Jesus wants to harmonize His mind and my mind with my wife’s mind, my children’s minds, my co-workers’ minds, my adversaries’ minds. You see, He doesn’t just want an aggregate of duet harmonies, He wants a universal symphony unified in the love intoned from the cross.
Which means my vocation to “take on the mind of Christ” is to embrace the absolutely brutal struggle of becoming “of one mind and one heart” (Acts 4:32) with all those unruly people around me every day. The implications of this are vast. As a priest said in a homily once, “Most of us, if we’re honest, want Jesus but not the unpleasant people He brings along with Him. So when we receive the Eucharist, we too often receive Christ the Head, but spit out His members…”
Bishop John Smith, who celebrated our nuptial Mass, said to us at a lunch we had at Patti’s apartment one month before our wedding, “Tom, once you marry, you can’t ever fully know Christ without knowing Patti; and you can’t fully know Patti without knowing Christ. Patti, the same goes for you. In this Sacrament, Christ means business.”
And in this Sacrament of Baptism, Christ means the same business.
At the end of my new year’s journal reflection, I read Philippians 2:1-5 with all this in mind. And wow:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
“It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” ― Annie Dillard
Only twice in my life can I say that I had the sense of someone looking into my soul through my eyes. One was back in 1991 with an elderly woman who was a Holocaust survivor. She was unquestionably a mystic, a person whose life was highly porous to the spiritual world. She had suffered greatly in her life. A priest I knew connected me with her, and offered me an opportunity to pray alone with her. It was at once terrifying and thrilling.
She took my hands into hers and prayed for me to God the Father. As she prayed, she mentioned in vivid detail an event from my childhood that was very difficult and, looking in my eyes, said, “God wants you to know He saw what happened to you and was with you. And wants you to know that He will bring great good from what you suffered. But first you must forgive and you must give it to Him. Only then can He bring good from it.” Then she said, “Through the cross to the Father.”
Needless to say, I was stunned and shaken. I had never encountered anything like this in my life. But what stood out most to me was that awareness of being “seen into,” of being known in such detail. How can I best describe it? It was like the feeling of being intensely loved by someone who really cares about you, and having them ask you to reveal some painful memory to them. You feel safe letting them in, not violated or ashamed, even though you’re absolutely vulnerable.
And to receive counsel to “let go and forgive” from a woman who had endured what she did?
When I shared this with my spiritual director later, he said, “Well, remember, mystics simply remind us in an extraordinary way what is already ordinarily the case. Granting God admittance to your deepest self and allowing Him to see you is prayer. He doesn’t want to know facts about you, He wants to know you. To get into your stuff and just be with you. If you give it over, as she said, He can recycle the raw materials of your soul into treasures that enrich others.”
Then he said, “Now all that’s nice, but it’s had its effect. Let it go. Don’t focus on the extraordinary details and do the hard work of the cross now. And remember, this didn’t happen because you’re special, but because the people who rely on you having your act together are…”
You have to allow a certain amount of time in which you are doing nothing in order to have things occur to you, to let your mind think. — Mortimer J. Adler
I gave a retreat this week for a school faculty. Teachers are one of my favorite groups to lead retreats with, as they are by profession hungry to learn, called to be the world’s experts at wondering.
As I often do, I spoke on the power of silence to open an inner space for creativity, honesty, freedom and prayer. Carving out time in each day to be still, to simplify your attention, to listen, to not be productive, to allow unattended thoughts and feelings to simply surface, without analyzing them — this is a royal road to inner peace and stability. To being fully human.
Among the most important practices of my day, I would rank at the top beginning every morning, not with music, news or internet, but with 5 minutes of total silence followed by at least 25 minutes of lectio divina on the day’s Mass readings. On the days I don’t do this, the effects are very evident. In a word, I lose my center and become dissipated.
Robert Cardinal Sarah said that “the life of silence must be able to precede the active life,” precisely because silence allows us to re-center ourselves within and become true actors and not just re-actors. Constant exposure to external noise, distraction and frenetic activity alienates us from ourselves, removes our anchor from God-in-the-soul and hooks our soul’s powers in the shifting sands around us.
I once had the opportunity to spend an hour in a car driving the Trappist monk and author, Fr. Raphael Simon, back to his monastery. What an honor, what a holy man. He heard my confession as I drove! I asked him what holiness looks like in his experience. He said,
In my experience, you can see greatness when words become fewer, weightier, more measured, emerge from a place of depth. Because of this, their words are like arrows that penetrate deeply into others. They also become exceedingly reticent to criticize anyone, and when they do, only with a sharp awareness of their own faults. You see, in silence God is able to reveal you to yourself in His light. But if you remain in noise, you remain in ignorance.
Though Jesus Christ is very hard to satisfy, He is very easy to please. Think of that and it will help you a little. He is very easy to please, but very hard to satisfy. If you will but let Him in, and you have not much to put on the table. He will be so pleased, if it be but a cup of cold water that you can give him. Let it be something genuine, something real. – George MacDonald
During a major transition in my life years back, I was in a dark place. I felt alone, adrift, a failure. As so often happens with people of faith, I projected my own warped sense of self onto God and assumed God’s view of me simply replicated what I felt about myself. If I felt good, God was pleased; if I felt bad, God was displeased. It’s a twisted game, and it made me withdraw from prayer, posture myself in self-defense against God and hide.
During this time, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona with a friend. We decided to take a day-trip to Sedona to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross. As I sat there in the quiet, looking at the spectacular view, I felt a strange sense of what I can only describe as “home.” I wrote in my journal that night, “Today I finally sensed God with me, and it didn’t evoke pain. I sensed powerfully He was a rock, an immovable lighthouse, faithful no matter what. Small insight, vast implications.”
We traveled back to Scottsdale that evening, and the next morning I went to Confession at a local parish. After I finished confessing my sins, the priest said,
Let me read you something from 1 John. Whenever our hearts condemn us, we have to remember God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything [3:20]. You clearly want to do God’s will, and he knows that. Know this: God is so pleased with your desire to please him. I can sense it. He is grateful you are here today giving him your sins and fears. God is grateful. Isn’t that a beauty to behold?
As I write these words, I realize I cannot convey the power they exerted in me at that moment. He spoke them slowly, with intention and sincerity. His words seemed to emanate straight from the mouth of God. For my penance, he said, “I want you to go outside the city tonight if possible and find a place where you can look out at the stars. Allow the immensity of the skies to overwhelm you, and then remember the God who made all of that loves you, tiny as you are, like that.”
That was a turning point in my life, and I came out of hiding. I had come back home. Years later, my wife said something that brought me back to that moment. When we were discerning whether or not we should leave Tallahassee and move to Iowa, I told her, “I don’t feel right taking you away from a place that’s been your home for almost 30 years.” She took my hands and said, “Wherever the will of God takes us is my home.”
Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8
In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.
Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.
One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,
The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As God–being-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.
God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.
What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.
About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.
That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”