“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

[I will not post until Saturday. Pax!]

For the world, there is no power of God. The world does not see and does not know the power of God: it laughs at the power of God. But Christians know that the sign of God is powerlessness in the world — the Infant in the manger. — Sergei Bulgakov

On November 27, 2015 while in Nairobi, Kenya, Pope Francis said to a group of youth, “I am going to tell you something private. In my pocket I always carry two things: a rosary to pray. And something which seems odd. This here, this item, is the history of God’s failure. It’s the Way of the Cross. A small Way of the Cross. As Jesus suffered, when they condemned him, right up to when he was buried. With these two things I do the best I can. And thanks to these two things, I never lose hope.”

“Esto es la historia del fracaso de Dios.”

I heard this by chance the other day and said aloud, “What??” Francis is the master of the stark.

The history of God’s failure, of God’s weakness (1 Cor. 1:25), of God’s folly (1 Cor. 1:18). Such a God is a source of hope. By becoming a condemned man, suffering heroic defeat, God made known His radical solidarity with humanity in all things, especially failure (Heb. 4:15). As St. Gregory Nazianzen said, “Christ took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.” So amazing. Our failure, our sin, our weakness, our brokenness, our fragility, because of God’s merciful folly, now becomes the royal road to union with Him. What is despicable in our lives, when handed over to God through repentance and surrender, God raises glorious. Again, Pope Francis reminds us, “Jesus too makes himself weak for us, he becomes bread. There is strength.”

French author, Georges Bernanos, wrote,

How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity—as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.

The sinful woman in Luke 7:47 could have hated herself, after the example of Simon the Pharisee, who despised her. But coming to know herself as lavishly loved by Jesus, she surrendered the paralyzing pride of self-hate and learned to love herself in concert with His love. These are the world’s greatest lovers. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Yes, God wishes us to “be perfect” (Matt. 5:58). But in the Kingdom, perfection is seen through the lens of the folly (mōria) of the Cross. The first one to enter Paradise is the co-crucified kakourgōn, “evil-doer” (Luke 23:40-43). Bound naked to the cross, he recognizes his absurd likeness to Israel’s King and by an act of reckless hope, repents headlong into the Heart of a wrecked God.

“Permit me,” St. Ignatius of Antioch says to the Romans, “to be an imitator of the passion of my God.”

So when things turn hard in life, and show up your (and others’) many weaknesses, hold tight to St Paul’s witness,

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? …

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

— 2 Cor. 11:24-30, 12:8-10

 

 

He will destroy death forever

On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations;
he will destroy death forever.
The Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from every face;
the reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken. — Isaiah 25:7-9

Back in the early 2000’s, a dear friend of ours was dying of cancer. He was terrified of death, mostly because he had “lived life hard,” as he put it, “and did serious wrong to a lot of people” before he came back to his Catholic faith late in life. He was afraid that all those people would be waiting for him on the other side of the grave, there to accuse him before God. No matter how much assurance he received in sacramental absolution, he held tight to his past.

My wife visited him in hospice with three of our children, all of whom were under 6 or under. The last time she went to see him, he was weepy and visibly panicked by the nearness of death. One of my children jumped up on his bed and said to him, “Don’t worry Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay!” Which only made him cry more.

A few hours after Patti and the children left, the woman who had been at his side throughout his chemotherapy and dying called me at work. She said, “Pat just passed to the Lord. I wanted your family to know what happened. After your wife and children visited and then left, Pat was, as usual, inconsolable. I went over to him and said, ‘Did you hear what that boy said to you?’ He nodded. Then I told him, ‘Don’t you know Jesus sent a child to you to prepare you to meet Him? Those words he said were straight from the Heart of God, ‘Don’t worry Patrick, it’s gonna be okay.’ He quieted down, closed his eyes and relaxed his breathing. I left the room, and he flat-lined. I just wanted you all to know that.”

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. — Isaiah 11:6

Marriage, Sacrament of Divine Friendship

Us

Today is our wedding anniversary. At 11:00 a.m., October 14, 1995 our Nuptial Mass began with us singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” alone before God, face to face. I remember her radiantly joyful face! Oh, and I think there were other people in the church that day as well. And as we finished praying together this morning in thanksgiving for our marriage and children, we looked out our hotel window and saw this on the beach below:

Since I have not had time to write this week, I thought I would edit and post something I wrote last year but never posted. I hope it benefits someone.

[St. Thomas Aquinas says that] after the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship.” This unique friendship between a man and a woman acquires an all-encompassing character only within the conjugal union. — Pope Francis

Augustine finds a way to make the “self-donation” of the spouses a function not primarily of natural inclination, but of the long, hard, purifying pedagogy in the loving humility of Christ which begets the only true joys. — John Cavadini

There was a man I know who was having trouble in his marriage, and he asked me recently if I would have lunch with him to speak about his situation. He is a man of deep faith with whom I have enjoyed many wonderful faith-filled conversations. He later gave me permission to share his insights anonymously.

He and his wife, who have several children, have grown distant over thirteen years of marriage. At the time I spoke with him, he said they lived in a state of “total war.” They fought all the time, mostly about parenting issues. “But,” he said, “it’s not the children that really are the issue. It’s that we just don’t like each other any more. We stopped having sex two years ago and can’t even talk about it.” As we talked about why that was the case, he said, “Look, we used to be best friends. There was no one I wanted to be with more than her, and I know she felt the same. Early on, everything came so naturally to us. But then life happened, kids came, my constant job changes, her parents’ resentment of my taking their daughter and grandkids away. It’s the hardest thing imaginable to live with someone you feel you don’t even know anymore. I feel like she hates me.”

Then he cried.

Life had gradually distracted them from each other and, as he said it, “practical things, busyness, children, work all robbed us of the time we used to take to keep each other the main focus.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Let me be more honest, Tom, and say we let them rob our time away. At least I did. You could say I thought we had plenty of gas in the tank to make the trip without refueling. The biggest mistake I made was to coast, take ‘us’ for granted. It’s so easy to do, and it seems lots of folks seem to just make it work. But we are just to intense for that to work. I just thought everything would always be the same between us and then everything else just got in the way.”

As we talked further, we talked about how they didn’t really consider how their marital promises had transformed their friendship into something radically new, transitioning from a private into a public reality — a covenant — opening the intimacy and exclusivity of their love to all the others who were now part of their covenant love,  i.e. extended family, children, work, church, society. All of these would now depend on and benefit from the beauty and strength of their faith, love and friendship. Yes, the two become one flesh, but that covenant drag a whole lot of other ‘flesh’ in with them!

This demanded of both of them something greater, stronger, more selfless, more open than they had been accustomed to before their marriage. Before, it was really just the two of them. I said, “On your wedding day, it’s like God placed in your joined hands a seed that would germinate and grow into a larger and larger family tree. Think of all the people who have come into your life! People who have come between you and strained your joined hands. To keep your hands joined as that tree grows and not let its increasing weight break them apart, takes mighty work; mighty love; mighty prayer; mighty grace; mighty support. Your love for each other needs to become more fierce and focused and intentional. It’s not too late.”

We talked about marriage as a Sacrament of God’s love. I said to him something like this (very summarized and formalized here),

Marriage reflects that way that the eternal, exclusive, pure love between Father and Son opened itself up to include the whole human race in that love when God became man. Think of what this opening up, this ‘going public’ demanded of God! You can think of the way Jesus speaks of and prays to the Father as a model for how you deepen and manifest your love for your spouse to all who come between you. The Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father extended itself to the bloody mess of humanity for us; so we might share in the unfathomable beauty of that immortal friendship of Father and Son. That opening up took the form of the Cross, which perfected the love between Father and Son (Mark 14:36; John 10:17; Heb. 2:10, 5:8) even as it intensified the love of Father and Son for humanity who had been invited to come between Them (John 3:16, 17:1-26).

You need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach you both the meaning of marriage again. Let Him in, together. He’s the author and perfector of marriage, He’s the bond of love between Father and Son, between the Son and humanity. In a real sense, He is marriage. He dreamed and created marriage and He wants to share with you both all He has to offer. Wisdom, grace, love, healing. Your marriage is a Sacrament of His love, so you have to let Him do His thing.

We sat for a few minutes in silence after this, and then he said, “Let’s pray.” We prayed, discussed a marriage counselor I recommended and got up to leave. He said, “We can do this. I know we can.”

The next week, I went to Confession. The words this older priest shared with me I at once emailed to that man. The priest said,

Remember, son, there is no one else on earth God commands you to love with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Of course he wants you to love your children and your parents and others in your life, but your wife alone deserves everything. Only God Himself requires such an absolute commitment. It’s really remarkable and sobering. She gets first dibs, first consideration, the best attention. She needs to know you better than anyone else and you need to know her better than anyone else. If you want to love your children, or anyone else, or even God, it starts and ends with how you love her. You will love everyone else well if you love her first. Understand? That’s the litmus test for everything. Every day when you examine your conscience, I want you to ask yourself, ‘Would my wife say she feels that is true?’ If not, say, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” and get to it.

Marriage truly is the Sacrament of divine friendship in human vesture. Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee!

“Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep?” — Psalm 44:24

God, quite often, uses a discordant note to make a symphony. — Joe, Sky View

The tuning up of an orchestra can be itself delightful, but only to those who can in some measure, however little, anticipate the symphony. — C.S. Lewis

God likes it when you get angry and tell him what you feel to his face because he is a Father! — Pope Francis

We have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists’

[This was a stream of consciousness journal entry written after my son and I spoke about prayer late into the night]

What the ‘proofs’ prove is, at one and the same time, the existence of God and that, as said of God, we have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists.’ … Reason is rooted in our animality and it opens up into the mystery which lies unutterably beyond it, for it can, out of fidelity to its own native impulse, ask the question which it knows it could not answer, the asking being within its powers, the answering being in principle beyond them — Denys Turner

This quote captures for me a deep taproot of wonder, the sacrament of which is the question. Theology is defined by St. Anselm of Canterbury as “faith seeking understanding,” an understanding of the content of divine revelation entrusted to Israel and fully manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

Let me say a few words about “divine revelation.” The history of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, is the history of an astonished race of nomadic Semites who found themselves beset by an unexpected god, guilty of breaking and entering their world with an utterly new, completely unsought, unspeakably bizarre and thoroughly disorienting revelation. This was a god who violated all usual constraints of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon, including the territorial and celestial borders each god observed. This God of gods seemed to feel free to roam wherever he wished (which is why Jonah fled to the sea in 1:3, thinking himself safe from the land god!) and vanquished all divine competitors (as Ex. 12:12 indicates, the plagues each specifically targeted the most powerful Egyptian gods).

The Exodus effected by this Roaming Conqueror was one theologically disorienting experience for the Hebrews and Egyptians.

Think here of Moses in the Sinai desert happening on the absurd vision of a burning bush that speaks to him and commands him to return to Egypt and confront the god-king, Pharaoh. And then when Moses asks this terrifying and fascinating deity for a name, what does he find out?

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Seriously? I am? Clearly, it is a name that is at once a firm evasion of being named, evading any human claim to manipulative control of a god. This god is uncontrollable, cannot be bribed or manipulated (Deut. 10:17), because he is holy, i.e. wholly other, totally unique, completely singular, sui generis. A capital G God.

Theology is the description of the work of an exploring mind that has had opened within it a radically new capax, a “capacity” for entering into this absurdly new and uncharted field of inquiry; into the God’s real-time, living self-disclosure. And faith is the name theology gives to this remarkable new capacity given to the mind for accessing immediate knowledge of the source-less Source of all existence. In fact, faith opens the mind to immediate contact with God, mind to Mind, moving the believer from mere conceptual knowledge about God to personal knowledge of God. This is what the monk Evagrius meant when he said, “The theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Prayer is the act of faith opening the mind to God, which is another way of saying acquiring the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Jesus is God’s human mind, which is why all prayer leads us into Christ (John 14:6).

When I think of all this, I am with John:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17).

St. John of the Cross argues that the union of the mind with God through faith requires a passage through darkness and death precisely because it involves a finite mind opening up within itself an infinite capacity. In this sense, the “dark night of faith” requires a leap of surrender that gives God permission to lead us from our narrow field of vision into the “vast and silent desert” where He can cease to hide and be fully God-for-us. As Mother Teresa said it, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself: Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive him and keep him as your own.”

Prayer ensures that the theologian’s knowledge is of God; of the outside-the-box, wild and transcendent God who is source-less, beginning-less, origin-less, un-created, un-bounded. God, in an absolute way, transcends our finite experience of existence. While we would say that there is a certain likeness between God and the world He created, which gives theology something to talk about, we also affirm a greater unlikeness gives theology something to be quiet about. This is prayer in its final flowering: to contemplate mystery, to permit God full freedom in us, embarking on love’s endless quest into the inexhaustible self-disclosure of God in Christ.

So, son, if you want to pray be ready for the ride.

And don’t ever forget, all of this raucous mystery finds its sweetest fruit only in the capacity to love like Jesus; especially to love one’s enemy.

Dear God, I give you all, willingly

“Dear God, I give you all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give, I just let them take. The best is to remain quiet. Because though I may not know how to give, you know how to take. Yet I would have wished to be once, just once, magnificently generous to you!” — The Curé d’Ambricourt, referring to his parishioners

Back in 1992, I suffered severe anxiety attacks that landed me in the hospital. I remember one day in particular, after I was released from the hospital and was recuperating at home in Massachusetts, I was experiencing that terrifying sense of total inner fragmentation that accompanies extreme cases of anxiety. The edge of madness. Those who have suffered this know exactly what I am saying. I had been unable to pray for days because I was paralyzed inside, but at a certain point in the day I was able to release some pressure from the inner volcano and melted down in tears. I was finally able to pray in that space of a moment, and distinctly recall saying to God, “If you want me to surrender myself to you, I need a self to surrender! I can give nothing to you now, I have nothing to give, so I ask you: just take this away!” I settled into a peace after a minute or so, and heard a distinct phrase spring to mind with a crisp clarity, “No, take me in.”

I immediately thought, book of Revelation. So I looked up the passage this inner voice had brought to mind. Jesus says in 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” So I invited Him into my storm-battered, wind-swept tent. The winds stilled, the storm calmed. For a time. And though the storms would return again and again, I had received then and there a new insight that remained. A new grace.

He was with me in the storm, the One who, in the Garden of Agony, had suffered a cosmic panic attack in the face of death’s annihilation. He was with me. With me. Such throwaway words. Yet when unshakable Love is with you, you cease to drift haplessly and hopelessly. He was with me as the One who said, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). He who has conquered the storm, who reigns over the panic as Prince of Peace, wished to enter me. And when He entered, this King of Glory, He gathered all the fragments within, praying to His Father for me, “That they may be one as we are one” (John 17:21).

Suddenly, St. Paul’s words in Galatians 2:19-20 made all new sense to me, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

And the words of consecration flashed with new light, “Take, eat my Body; take, drink my Blood.” In the holy Eucharist, I consume Christ, “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Yes, Lord, do not take this away. Come, enter as my guest and make all things new. Amen.