From the Darkness into the Light

A woman named “Amy” commented here last week and asked this of me: “When time allows, please give your thoughts on adult children who struggle with addiction.”

I immediately thought of a remarkable woman I have come to know here in New Orleans, Mary Lou McCall, who agreed to share with me her hard-won wisdom on this topic. So, Amy, this is for you and for all who endure similar crosses among family and friends. Thank you, Mary Lou.

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There is no challenge that will stretch a parent’s capacity to love with the merciful heart of Christ more than when their child is suffering from the brain disease of addiction. This is one darkness that will also push a parent to climb up on the cross with Jesus and cling in desperation to his battered and bloody body. The agony of the crucifixion and the pain wrought by active addiction are parallel journeys intimately embedded in the mystery of the Cross where victory over sin has been claimed for eternity. Meditating upon the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fully absorbing his sacrificial love, is essential for parents whose children have been seduced by this very cunning, baffling and powerful force.

“Nothing is more beneficial…No remedy could be as effective for the healing of our wounded souls as the continuous contemplation on the suffering of Christ.” — St. Augustine

Addiction amplifies our disordered nature brought on by original sin. The horrific harnessing of the human mind through pornography or gambling, or through the abuse of drugs like alcohol and opiates, rewires the person’s brain producing the uncontrollable urge to continue doing the behaviors that are destroying them and using the drugs that are killing them. Addiction simultaneously suffocates the light in the soul and leads to the sinister oppression of free will. It is as though a force has taken over their battered yet breathing corpse. What happened to the child that nursed at your breast, who squealed with delight at Christmas, who brought you such incandescent joy just because they existed? They are still there and because they are still among the living, we must never give up hope!

Addiction is a progressive, insidious attack against the sanctity of human life; it distorts the sacred intent of family life; and it eventually spoils the community through the resulting increase in crime. The consequences of addiction and the shame produced by this dark human bondage seeps into every level of society, cutting across all socio-economic and religious divides. No one is immune. I experienced this powerful plague as it hemorrhaged the lives of two of my five sons. One of them confessed to me years later that he had been so tired and depressed that he was one click away from shooting himself with a gun. I firmly believe that God and the Blessed Mother heard the anguished cry of my son’s soul and intervened on his behalf.

The soul-binding fear and despair that I felt during those dark days, pummeled me into complete submission to the Lord’s will because none of the medical solutions were helping. I prayed for the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit as I fell to my knees before the tabernacle of the Lord and begged for God’s mercy on my children and for the strength to carry me through each day. Jesus did not let me down.

He gently lifted me up and carried me deep into his Sacred Heart where His pulsating love pumped new life into every fragment of my fragile nature. I grew progressively hopeful as He inspired me to seize with complete abandon the graces of my baptism and my children’s baptism. He urged me to humbly enter daily into that sacred space, Holy Mass, where the paschal mystery is celebrated in the eternal now. The Word made flesh, the flesh transforming life and the circular love that has no beginning and no end propelled me along a spiritual trajectory that changed my life and lifted the darkness that had shrouded my family. Before I knew it, the sanctifying graces that were transforming me, spilled over to my sons and saturated their wounds with His healing love. Ever so slowly they grew stronger as they literally willed themselves into recovery and the long progressive process of restoration and renewal.

We are intimately connected to our children as we are to our God, and the synchronicity of our DNA and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than we can humanly understand. So, hang on tight to your faith and believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered on his promise to redeem mankind, and the same God who designed for us the most powerful toolbox in the world, the Sacraments of our Catholic faith.

Pick up those tools so that you can look with compassion and love into the eyes of your children, deep into their soul where Jesus resides. Love them with the same everlasting love that Jesus gives to all of us each and every day; hold them tightly as He is holding us, and always remember that victory has already been won!

“We believe that in the darkest night, it is possible to find light again.”
Mother Elvira Petrozzi, Comunita Cenacolo

A Small Step

Mustard seed

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. — Pope Francis

My sagely grandfather once wrote me in a letter, “Never be discouraged by your shortcomings, Tommy. Use them to stretch your soul. Remember, your greatest virtues are not those that come naturally but ones nearly impossible to perform. Holding a sharp tongue once far surpasses in worth a surplus of easily spoken kind words. Cracking a feeble smile from a dim soul to lift an ignoble lout vastly outshines the outpouring of exuberant joy from a bright heart lavished on a cheery friend. Value the difficult good things in life most. Every day, your next best step.”

That’s writing.

So often people who strive to live a life of faith share with me a deep exasperation over their inability to do all the good they wish, pray as they would hope, forgive as they must, be patient as they desire, and so on. They are hemmed in by a thousand limits, internal and external, and become discouraged, frustrated, angry, guilt-ridden. I understand this so well. Yet the beauty of our God! Revealed for who-He-is in a cradle and on a cross, He is irresistibly drawn to small spaces, inconvenient circumstances, tiny mustard seeds. He, lover of the Widow’s Mite, dances over fitful acts of faith, hope and love. He is absurdly pleased with our pathetic nothings, born of heartfelt sincerity, steeped in reckless trust, all the while surrendered to His boundless mercy.

I know a Catholic woman with lots of children who felt for years like she was a failure in her spiritual life because of her inability to make any significant time for focused prayer or to muster any meaningful feelings of devotion when she finally found time. She said guilt and anger became her primary spiritual disposition toward God. Then she met a contemplative Carmelite nun in Rhode Island to whom she confided her struggle. She said the nun floored her when she said, “What God gives to me in 6 hours of prayer a day, He gives to you in the few minutes you consecrate to Him. The joy He takes in my silent contemplation is exceeded by the joy He takes in your harried frustration, given over to Him. Your desire to please Him renders all of the walls around you into an iconostasis.”

What.

The woman said to me, “Those words are what I call my ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was let out of my prison of guilt that day.”

This made me think of 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s tender words, “God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love Him. He accepts our petitions as benefits as though we were doing Him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving.”

So when you feel most useless, helpless, feckless, aimless, wrap it up in faith, light it up with hope and send it up with love into the Heart of God. But be ready. Out of that pierced Heart floods a raging fountain of mercy, and mercy takes no prisoners.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

When The Saints Go Marching In

St. Clement of Rome Oyster Festival, last night — 11/12/17

A simple post today.

Our parish’s annual Oyster Festival, which raises money for St. Clement of Rome grade school, finished last night. It is a Neal Family annual highlight, and my wife and I go every night to listen to the music and dance.

Every six to eight months we celebrate the Lord’s Day in our home with family and friends, including games, food, fellowship, music (everything from Nowhere Man to Let the Fire Fall, and with Ashley and Maria live performances) and catechesis, with Sunday Mass celebrated on our dining room table. It’s a profound experience of joy, awe, and friendship that helps forge our home into a domestic church. Fr. Brad Doyle graciously offered his precious time to be with us, leading us in praise and worship (man he can sing and pray!), celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and sharing his vocation story. We feel blessed to be associated with so many extraordinary people of faith in New Orleans.

Late last night, I texted a poem about the day to my daughters’ friends (who were there) that I will share here. Also, I will share a video I recorded last night of the fabulous band, Bag of Donuts, closing the weekend with a song by a son of NOLA, Louis Armstrong, that is (obviously) beloved by New Orleaneans.

And I caught my wife in front me dancing… (shh)

Yep, I want to be in that number!

Bananagrams, friends, musical prayer /
newcomers, latecomers, pull up a chair /
cuz God’s out the window; we opened it up /
and He came in to join us, a mystical Sup. /
#ourdiningroomtable, an Altar today /
there loved by a God who’s chosen to stay; /
a God who feeds us, outpouring His grace: /
our expanded family, His dwelling place.

 

Keep making beauty

A seminarian who loves Kurt Vonnegut shared this letter with me from the fantastic collection, edited by Shaun Usher, called More Letters of Note. I highly recommend it!

I absolutely love what Vonnegut has to say and the playful way he says it. As GK Chesterton says, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Yes. Never once have I engaged in any art form — as a creator or a receiver — and not come away enriched. But what struck me most was Vonnegut’s last paragraph.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a literature professor and a (degreed) philosopher shared with me a fascinating insight into art. He said something like this (as I jotted in in my journal later),

Great artists are careful not to do all of their art for public consumption, so that their creativity is not unduly determined by external motives, e.g. trends, accolades, money. They do some of their art for charity, some anonymously, some for the unlettered, some for beauty’s sake, some for God alone. Think of how many saints burned their work! We see that as a great loss to us, and it is! But they saw it as a needful act of detachment, of humility, as an oblative acknowledgement that none of it was theirs to begin with. Beauty resists being possessed by utility, so her truest prophets must always be willing to surrender to her will and not bend her to their own. Often that can mean sharing art with others for their benefit, but there must be moments when the artist is equally happy to create Beauty in secret and offer her back to her Origin. Like those art forms of the spiritual life, prayer, alms and fasting [Matthew chapter 6!].

Last week I was going to bed early and I heard my daughter in the other room playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. She did not know I was listening and no one else was around. I had not slept well in weeks. As she played it, tears rolled down my face and I was transported into sleep. I woke the next morning with my alarm without waking up once during the night. It was a gift beyond telling. I wrote her a note that afternoon, “Thank you for giving beauty to your dad last night from the piano. I heard it, unbeknownst to you, and God heard it as a prayer for your dad. Keep making beauty. ❤ Love you.”

God loves me more … for you

[Re-post from 2014. Again, no posts until the weekend. Peace and joy!]

“All you can take with you is that which you give away.”

That quote, which appears in a scene of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, captures the economy of God’s Kingdom. While it most certainly refers to the importance of alms given to the poor, it refers more generally to a way of life based on this premise: All that I possess, without exception, is inscribed with the law of love and so must be always turned otherward if it is to achieve its proper end. Every gift I possess is marked with a secret arrow pointing at someone in need.

God’s special favor to one is always done in view of all, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God’s special love for one is an epiphany of His love for all who will benefit from the gifts of the one. God loves no one in isolation. The Virgin Mary was given unique privileges of grace not so she could revel in being loved and favored more than others, but rather so she could bear the immense responsibility of being God’s Mother and, as New Eve, the Mother of all those re-created in her Son.

When a reporter shared her dismay at God’s seeming unfairness in giving Mother Teresa health, while those she served suffered various ailments and misfortunes, Mother replied along these lines, “The suffering are given the great gift of sharing in the world’s redemption with Jesus on the cross. I am not worthy to suffer as they, but I am worthy to walk with them. And if I am given health, it is so that I might spend my health on caring for the sick. It would only be unfair if I spent my health on myself. But God gives nothing unfairly. Only we are unfair.”

Health as a sign of divine favor to the sick? My God. What a vision of life if you really live out of it.

As I look at every gift I have been given in life, my question should always be, “For whom was this given to me?” Vanity is when I imagine my gifts are principally meant to draw benefit on myself — attention, accolades, indulgence, ease.

Even God sees Himself bound by this law, in this way. He freely created all things because His love demanded that His existence, with all of its infinitely rich attributes, be given away. God is one but not alone. God is Three, as God-ness demands being given away: Father to Son, Son to Father, Father and Son to Spirit. Creation was the natural sequel to this eternal dynamism.

A Sister at the Missionary of Charity hospice I worked at said to me, “You can know God only when you love, and you can love only when you know you are loved.” Ah. It helped me understand afresh the meaning of 1 John 4:20, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Fr. Anthony, my spiritual director years ago, said to me in a vulnerable moment, “I want to die poor, empty, with nothing left to give.” Three weeks before he died, his doctor said, “You need to have heart surgery, Tony.” He said, “Yes, yes, after Christmas. I need to be with my people for Christmas.” When he did not show up for the Vigil Mass on December 31, they came into the Rectory looking for him. They found him in his rocking chair, with an afghan and a rosary in hand, dead. His surgery was scheduled for January 2.

Loving God with a bowl of milk

Last Spring, a young man came to me asking me for insight into his vocational discernment. He said with great sincerity, “How can you love God well when you have a wife and children who distract you from giving yourself only to Him? You see, this is what tortures me, that I feel I have no option if I want to love God radically.” The poor young man, for the next two hours, received my torrential downpour response.

Mostly we spoke about the non-competitive meaning of creation vis-à-vis God in human fulfillment; about God’s choice to become Man as sealing this non-competitive meaning; about the nature of love in the Christian story; and about the irreducible diversity of vocations as preserving the fullness of love’s expression in the human race.

I ended our conversation with a beautifully simple story recounted by the Orthodox spiritual author, Anthony Bloom. When I first read it back in 1988, I found it terribly liberating as it somehow opened up in me a space to include in my love for God the thousand small things about life that I still loved. As I had fallen under the sway of some hyper-spiritual Moses friends who convinced me I had to renounce my very earthy ‘bowls of milk’ if I wanted to live for an immaterial God, this story seemed to me to be a key to unlatch the prison I felt I had entered.

Here’s the story:

In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has in a wooden bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies ‘This is God’s milk.’ Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says ‘I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as on offering to God.’

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, ‘And does God drink it?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the shepherd, ‘He does.’ Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that He does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk. Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes, and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight towards the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. The shepherd says ‘You were right, God is pure spirit, and He doesn’t want my milk.’ Moses is surprised. He says ‘You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.’ ‘Yes, I do’ says the shepherd, ‘but the only thing I could do to express my love for Him has been taken away from me.’ Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard.

In the night in a vision, God speaks to him and says ‘Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me, as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.

His Church can do no less

Dachau

Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxy to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer. This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the world stops being cute when told it is morbid. The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh. It is what his Body corporate is here for. In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that [Christ] laid down his life for the life of the world–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less. —  Fr Aidan Kavanagh

His Church can do no less. My.

Yesterday I was speaking with a friend about the general “yuck factor” of so many things going on around us these days, from every direction. Personal, familial, political, cultural, ecclesial, environmental. Yes, human history has always been a mess, corruption has always penetrated every sector of life, chaos has always seemed to threaten a violent knock at the door. But there are times when it gets to you, eats away at you, discourages you, ebbs away your sense of hope.

My friend shared her prayer experience that morning, which gave her a clearer inkling that God — who laughed as she prayed — has already dealt with the darkness and triumphed. All that is needed is trust in His redemptive providence as we “do our own best,” tiny as that might be. Faithful, not successful is the goal.

After we met, as I sat in my car and prayed, I could see afresh how easy it is for the darkness to wear away my Christian hope by turning my gaze away from brightness of Jesus toward the threatening dark of the raging storm. Once Peter, even us. And as your gaze fixes on the terrors of the night, fear, cynicism, hostility and every other corrosive attitude begin to take over and your resolve to ride the wave of God’s so-love for the world diffuses, tumbles and sinks into a sea of doubt and discouragement.

Earlier that day, a lifelong friend, who was visiting the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, sent me a series of photos of the unspeakable horrors that were perpetrated there. She appended a comment to each photo, and in the last one — which showed a pile of over 100 emaciated bodies being prepared for cremation — she wrote, “explain to me again why God loves human beings?”

All day those words haunted me. After lunch, I wrote her back, “I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to give you a pat answer. But this is what came to me at Mass today as I reflected on the fact that in Holy Communion I ate and drank the torn Flesh and spilled Blood of God (all done by hateful humanity): we cannot ever explain the why, only that God does. In fact, eucharistic worship is the only possible response of the creature to the absolute inability to answer the question of why God is as God is. In other words the only answer to why is: Thank you for being God.”

So when I ask myself on those dark days why I still choose to love? Well, I simply throw myself into the why-less mystery of God who is not “loving,” but is love. He is absolutely unfettered and free, yet He can be no other that this. I was called into existence to be this same why-less mystery, made His image and likeness. I did not choose that, yet my freedom is only confirmed by being that. Only when I surrender to being that does my hope return.

Even, no, especially, when I would like my “why” answered.

Something like that.