The baby shall play…

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea. — Isaiah 11:6-10

The very first form of prayer I can recall in my childhood, though I likely would not have called it “prayer,” was being outdoors in solitude and silence. I have a flash-memory of a close friend of my parents coming to visit our house when I was four or five, and remember vividly saying, when she asked me if she could come out into the yard to watch me catch bees on the azalea that was in full bloom: “Only if you’re quiet. They don’t like talking.”

I specifically recall learning “contemplation” — the mind’s simple, patient gaze in search of beauty — by long awaiting in the subtlest unfurling of a marigold flower the peeking in of Infinity. And then learning the spiritual sense of smell when I would later deadhead it and inhale its sacrificial aroma. I also recall being filled with intense gratitude over a world around me teeming with life and mystery, wonder and danger, that evoked from my soul spontaneous reverence and awe.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. — William Blake

My dad used to love to remind me often that, when I was only two or three year old, I would sit in front of an ant mound for hours, immobile, lost in rapt attention. I remember doing it.

When I was a bit older, I learned to garden, digging and weeding, deadheading and pruning, fertilizing and watering, panting and sweating. It was the only form of labor I knew at the time that contained its own reward. No human praise or payment was demanded, as my labors unlocked beauty and praise from the animate and inanimate world I tended. What else could I require?

The sky and stream, the grass and trees, the snow and fog, the birds and rocks, the fish and tadpoles, the bee sting and snake bite, the decaying corpse and freshly laid egg all seemed poised to unfold for me a fresh parable that would somehow explain the meaning of existence.

Yet not until I came to Psalm 19 did that parable come fully alive:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Day unto day conveys the message,
and night unto night imparts the knowledge.
No speech, no word, whose voice goes unheeded;
their sound goes forth through all the earth,
their message to the utmost bounds of the world.

My yet-to-be articulated childhood priesthood of grace and nature flowed freest with its chrism’d oils only when I found myself in solitude and silence, in cultivating and attentiveness, in a posture of humble learning before the dissonant harmonies of an ecosystem that towered over and enveloped me like a vast temple.

Were I to search for words that adequately enshrine this childhood vocation, and the sense of mission and hope it contained, it would include these remarkable words of Pope Benedict XVI:

The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. And let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves. That our lives may speak of God, that our lives may be a true liturgy, an announcement of God, a door through which the distant God may become the present God, and a true giving of ourselves to God.

May God grant that I become a child again and re-learn my priesthood.

Color everywhere

Be an ordinary person, one of the human race. — Fr. Tom Hopko

In the first two years after my coming to faith, the monk I was seeing for spiritual counsel said to me, “You’ve become something of a religious addict. You need balance in your life. There’s so much more to life than religion.” He went on to say that, while we Catholics say religion, that virtue of friendship with God, should give right order to all of the other good things in life, we do not say religion is the only good thing in life.

He was referring to a not uncommon experience of new converts — religion had taken over everything in my life. My zeal was unrestrained. Religion is all I read about, talked about, was interested in, did, and the many non-religious things (and people) that used to hold my interest and passion had all faded away. For me, religion had not enhanced and refined my previous interests and passions, but withered them with nothing but religion to replace them.

I dismissed his comment at the time, and was puzzled why a monk would be a downer on my zeal. But it was not long before I began to realize how beige, uninteresting and myopic my life had become. The words that Algernon Charles Swinburn placed on the lips of the dying apostate emperor Julian perfectly captured the Christ I then knew, “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.”

That realization of the call to an integrated maturity set me on a personal, vocational and intellectual quest that has captured my mind and heart over the last 30 years, and it shows up often in my writing and teaching — the quest for balance, for discovering how faith does not wash life in this world of its brilliantly diverse colors, but rather intensifies, purifies and diversifies them.

As sacred and secular gradually ceased to be competitors, my “second conversion” gradually introduced something into my life I did not even know was absent: a joy free to permeate everything. I saw that out of the dark tomb emerges not a disembodied spirit, but the Flesh and Blood of a risen Christ who redeems for us the world God so loves, and makes all things new. The words of Kenneth Himes voice well my new vision,

The sacred is the sacramental form of the secular, i.e., the sacred is the secular in its full depth.

I remember when I listened to Pope Benedict’s inaugural papal homily back in 2005, I thought to myself: that is the perfect summation of an insight it has taken me 15 years to consolidate. He said,

[Pope John Paul II] was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?

And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

Silent Advent

 

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Lack of silence in contemporary society is making many people’s lives more agitated and at times convulsed. Some people are no longer able to stay long in silence. Most young people, who are already born in this state, seem to fill every empty moment with music and images, almost afraid to feel, in fact, this void. Without realizing it, people are immersed in a virtual dimension, because of the audio-visual messages that accompany their life from morning to evening.” — Pope Benedict XVI

Advent is a season that should be marked by greater silence. While it seems obvious that time spent in silence should be used for prayer, I also strongly recommend spending time in silence with a spouse, a friend, a child. Try it, it’s extremely powerful.

Here by silence, I mean freedom from noise for the sake of an increased capacity to receive and perceive. Or, as Deacon Jim Keating describes it, “silence is the diminishment of interference between ourselves and…”

So many “…” in our lives.

Silence heightens our awareness.

Silence prepares us to become better listeners.

Silence opens up in us an inner space for greater clarity of thought and creativity.

Silence permits the deep inner world of the mind, that often hides in dark shadows, to surface and come into the light.

Silence allows us to fashion and discover our true center within.

Silence exposes our attachments so we can act in freedom.

Silence grants our weary souls rest.

Silence heals.

But make no mistake, the one who pursues silence will find himself at war with a world of noise, within and without.

To achieve inner silence requires great effort and resolve, planning and patience, accountability and long-suffering perseverance.

But the fruits.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the fitting response of one who has freely received from another a favor, gift or blessing that, though not deserved in strict justice, was given to benefit the receiver in some way. In other words, whatever good you have done for me that is “beyond the call of duty” becomes my vocation to give thanks.

In God’s case, everything He has done in creating and holding the world in existence, as well as in freely redeeming an ungrateful world for an eternal destiny of glory and fulfillment, is a summons to thanksgiving.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. — James 1:17

Every day begun with a litany of thanksgiving, acknowledging every gift given, would be a day in which nothing else could be accomplished! “If I count them, they are more than the sand” (Ps. 139:18)! And in Romans 8:28, St. Paul ensures us that absolutely nothing of what happens to those who love the God of Christ crucified-and-risen can be excluded from our litany of thanksgiving:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

All things, in the light of eternity, bear within them seeds of the resurrection. Faith, hope and love, the three fountains of thanksgiving, alone can germinate those seeds.

…and not only do I rightly give thanks for the literally countless particular gifts I have received, I also give thanks for existing at all. And even more, I give thanks that God is, and that he is love. This is mind-blowing, breathtaking, and every time I call this truth to mind afresh, I feel a fresh rush of joy and relief that, behind this world filled with violence, death and pain, is beginning-less, endless and omnipotent Love — who says,

Behold, I make all things new. — Rev. 21:5

A last thought. Though it is true that God gives all his gifts freely, once received these gifts carry within them an exigency, a demand to give them away. Equally as true as the saying, “you can’t give what you don’t have,” is the saying, “you can’t have what you don’t give.” Or in Jesus’ words, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt. 10:8). The grateful are generous, and the generous are cheerful because they are grateful.

The Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom offers an expression of gratitude that I have committed to memory and often use throughout the day as a litany of thanks. Please join me in praying it, and may your Thanksgiving be bountiful this holiday for all things…

It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.

Thou it was who brought us from nonexistence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come.

For all these things we give thanks to Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son, and to Thy Holy Spirit, for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen…

1. For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.

Refrain: Lord of all to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

2. For the wonder of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light.(Refrain)

3. For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild.(Refrain)

4. For the church, that evermore
Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering up on every shore
Her pure sacrifice of love.(Refrain)

5. For Thyself, best Gift Divine.
To our race so freely given,
For that great, great love of Thine,
Peace on earth and joy in Heaven

As I am, coram Deo

Image result for you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free

When we are truly ourselves, we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.” ― Thomas Merton

Many years ago, I went to Confession and revealed a particular habitual sin I had grown weary of confessing over time. We all have them, and sometimes they can lead us into dark places of despair or apathy. But this time, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I gained a deep insight into a root cause of this well-worn habit. I guess it was an experience of grace and nature in sync.

The root I saw was certainly run of the mill, as they go, but the link of the root to the weed of this particular sin was new for me. What I saw was a deep-seated tendency to measure my worth by reflexively comparing myself with others, and what I saw I saw with jarring clarity. As I expressed it in my journal, “I have a very dark fear that who I am is simply never enough.”

Now, I think it’s important to say here that I am not referring to healthy self-knowledge that we humans always have room for growth; or that we need to know our sins, weaknesses or shortcomings so as to remain grounded in reality and aspire to what is better. Nor am I referring here to the importance of seeking out heroes and heroines whose greatness challenges and inspires in us the pursuit of excellence.

No, what I saw in that Confessional was a manner of comparing that only led down into a pit of self-loathing, judgment, resentment, and an envy that grieved over others’ good things. The fruit of this dark self-knowledge was the collapse of hope.

How magnificent is the Sacrament of Mercy! In the shadow of this Sacrament my dark knowledge was filled with light. As I wrote it down in my journal later that day:

John 8:32 became in me today a recapitulation of Genesis 1:1, i.e. the truth has set me free to become a new creation. A seed was planted in me today that I must now tend to if it is to grow and bear fruit. This seed demands that Old Man Adam die within me, and that New Adam rise…

These years since have been immensely fruitful, if challenging, in that regard.

Skip ahead to this last Friday night. My wife and I went to see the new Mr. Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. There was a scene in the movie where a reporter asked Mr. Rogers if he thought he was a hero. When Mr. Rogers responded that he simply saw himself as an “everyman,” the reporter then asked, “Well, then do you see your character as a hero?” Mr. Rogers responded with alarming sincerity, “I don’t understand your question.”

That response tore me open.

The person Fred Rogers “presents” to the public is the same man who is the everyman, the man he is at home, on set, deep within coram Deo, “before God.” He was a man at peace with himself. That for me is his beauty, a man so reconciled to the reality of who he is, that he’s capable of entering fully and freely with others into a non-competitive arena of redemptive relationships.

Seeing all his inner darkness and light coram Deo, Fred Rogers lived loved by God’s redemptive mercy. Thus reconciled, he could then pass on to others not the dark shadows of a comparing and critical spirit, but the gentle light of self-acceptance that opens him to the peaceful pursuit of true greatness…

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious
or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.

I also saw anew 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I wrote, “To know God in my weakness is to know this: I am as loved by God in the moment of my greatest failure as I am in the moment of my greatest virtue. The only change is my capacity to perceive and receive this love. This alone frees me to be a man at peace, a man of peace.”

Lay fanatics

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics.

For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head.— Flannery O’Connor

I know a man who is a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Christianity, and was a church-planting minister for many years. Once, he and I took a long lunch sharing about the theology of the laity, and specifically about the above O’Connor quote. At one point in the conversation, he said something I found remarkable. He said,

Evangelicals really get what Catholics call the ‘lay vocation’ in the world, because they only have baptismal priesthood, since they jettisoned Ordained priesthood and Religious life. Those believers Catholics call ‘the laity,’ Evangelicals simply call Christians, and what Christians do is be good disciples by bringing Jesus into everything they do. They see the path to holiness everywhere …

… One of the most striking differences I noticed soon after I started getting involved in the inner Catholic circles was this tendency of Catholic leaders to see in wealthy or influential Catholics potential benefactors, while Evangelicals tended to see wealthy or socially influential people first and foremost as potential culture-warriors.

Or, I noticed when Catholics saw the fresh zeal of new converts, they tended to channel them into internal church ministry worker-bee activities, or into future vocations to priesthood and religious life — Evangelicals were more likely to disciple these converts as missionary movers-and-shakers in secular culture. My church had the motto, ‘change a heart, change the world.’

… Though I have noticed some progress on the Catholic side recently, on the ground what I described remains pretty much the default pattern. With some notable exceptions.

I then brought up the example of Tyler Joseph from Twenty One Pilots, whose early approach to music-as-mission was deeply influenced by his Evangelical faith, and by a pastor in the church, Five 14, which describes itself thus:

Our name, Five14 Church, comes from Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” We exist to bring light to a dark world.

As we finished our conversation, my lunch partner introduced me to a song by the Evangelical musician, Steven Curtis Chapman — “Do Everything.” He said Chapman’s song captures this Evangelical vision that the hard core work of grace is to empower the believer to do everyday things as a way to “tell the story of grace.”

I have posted that song here probably a hundred times, so here is one hundred and one.

The Meaning of Icons

I wanted to share the video recording of a lecture we had last Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary, where I teach. It is of Fr. Maximos Constas speaking on The Meaning of Icons. It is brilliant, as Fr. Maximos always is. He gave our last annual Catholic-Orthodox lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor, and we loved him so much we asked him to return!

He’s the only rockin’ Athonite monk I know. A genius, a linguist, a theologian, a historian, a warm human being and a connoisseur of great art. The kind of man you could speak with for hours, and forget time passed. The kind of man who, when displaying his vast knowledge of nearly any subject, doesn’t make you feel stupid, but wiser. In other words, he’s a teacher.

My son Michael recorded and edited the video (note the cool way he inserted Father’s slides!). He said to say that the video is a bit grainy because Fr. Maximos wanted the light dimmed for the Power Point slides.