The debt of gratitude

The icon is a work of tradition. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers stand behind each loaf of homemade bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist, but the fruit of many generations of believers uniting us to the witnesses of the Resurrection. — Jim Forest

When I took a class on the Jewish Talmud back in 1989 my professor, who was an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, described the painstaking work of scribes who had faithfully transmitted the Scriptures before the invention of the printing press. He held up a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and said, “whenever we read Tanakh we have a duty to begin with hakarat hatov, to ‘recognize the goodness’ of those countless people whose toil brought us these sacred texts. As we begin the study of Torah blessing Hashem [the Name of God], we must also bless those devout scribes who preserved the Law with great love and devotion.”

The class made such an impact on me that since then I have made it a habit to cultivate a grateful awareness of the toil that stands behind everything around me, including the Sacred Scriptures. Doing that has made me consistently aware of the profound debt of gratitude I owe to an unseen God and to a mostly unseen community of humanity, stretching back millennia.

Growing up, there was a woman I knew and loved named Muriel Vassett. She and her husband were close to my parents and she was like a second mother to me. She was a saintly woman, who taught in Catholic schools for years and refused to accept a salary (she said her husband made enough so she donated her salary to pay other teachers a higher wage). When I was in college, and very far from the practice of my faith, she grew very ill and nearly died of congestive heart failure. She suffered terribly. Then she had a (literally) miraculous recovery, and when I went to visit her after she had returned to full health she told me something that left me speechless. About six months before flying out to see her, I had experienced a completely unexpected and radically life-changing encounter with Christ. As we sat together, I shared with her the story of my newfound faith and she shared with me the story of her miraculous healing. Then she told me, “Tommy, I offered my pain up for you to become the man God wanted you to be. And God received my offering. Be worthy.”

Thirty years later, I still feel intensely the same debt of gratitude to her for the man I am. She could have written 1 Cor. 4:7 and Galatians 4:19 to me:

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

My little children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!

Blessed are you, Muriel, for handing on faith to me by offering to God your body as a living sacrifice, for me and for many. Blessed are you, mom and dad, for giving me life. Blessed are you, countless unseen laborers in the world who bring me good at every moment. Only in Paradise — please God I enter — will I understand the beauty of this vast web of life and be able to give fitting thanks to the God who ceaselessly labors to bind humanity together as one.

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. — John 17:21-24

Orientation and such

Sunset on Sunday

The biosphere of Truth is mystery, inaccessible depths, and unreachable heights. Its homeland is the eschaton, the absolute future beyond the horizon of history—and its major role in the present is to be constantly in a state of opposition to our attempts to make absolutes out of some of our human attitudes, approaches, and opinions, which are limited by our own individual (not universal) experience. — Tomáš Halík

Just love this quote. His view of Truth is why I, after 30 years of sustained reflecting on the same truths of faith, find myself increasingly spellbound over its limitless depth and dynamism. Every time I seem to finally grasp a particular facet of faith, it immediately outpaces me and transcends my pretentious claims to comprehension. The word “comprehend” comes from the Latin com + prehendere, “to entirely catch hold of, seize.” If there is one thing that the God of Israel is clear about, it’s that no one manipulates, captures, circumscribes God, save His own Spirit who “searches all things, even the deep things of God [ta bathē tou theou]”  (1 Cor. 2:10).

But St. Paul gives us a remarkable hope in the face of the God of unfathomable depth:

“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

To do theology as a Christian is to be given a share in the mind of Christ. Theology is defined by St. Anselm as fides quaerens intellectum, “faith questing after understanding,” with the verb quaerens being the operative term for those interested in exploring ta bathē tou theou. I wholly concur with St. Augustine, Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus, “If you comprehend, it is not God.” I am not agnostic, because I believe God is knowable. I am apophatic, because I believe God is incomprehensible, always surpassing my mind’s capacity in its love-driven journey into Infinite mystery. Christ is God’s Word with a human mind, is the Way into the Truth of the living God, and the Spirit, who gives us a share in the mind of Christ, permits us to join in His sojourn into the Father’s Word; and so into the Father. Doing theology makes me want to say with Isaiah:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:6).

Blessed be God who filled my soul with fire!

Utterly terrifying, thrilling, more so every day.

Okay, so…

It’s that time of year again. This is Orientation Week at the seminary, classes begin next week, I am finishing grading final papers for a summer course and I have a family event this weekend. So we will see what things small, big or non-existent make it to this Blog between now and Sunday! In any event, my prayers are with my readers, and I would be grateful for your own prayers for my intentions.

In the mean time, I will leave you with two totally random offerings.

First, I thought I would share a window into my seminary work. Here is a brief presentation I give every year to new seminarians on our culture of “intellectual formation” at Notre Dame. I gave it yesterday morning. Click here.

Second, here is Sia’s To Be Human, produced for the DC movie Wonder Woman (which I loved).

Peace and joy.

“A (lay) Woman clothed with the sun” — Revelation 12:1

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Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own, in her, to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all. Or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her rising now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. — St. Gregory Palamas

Today the Church celebrates the “summer Pascha,” the August Easter, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven. This is a day of great joy for us, as it celebrates the fulfillment of all human longing in immortal glory. If we grasp this point, and believe that in Holy Mass God smashes the glassy pane of time to reach us, our language of “holy day of obligation” to describe our motive for Mass attendance transitions from blind obedience to joyful duty. The Obliged blurt out, “How can I keep from singing?”

I must interject…

All that we say of the Virgin Mary we say of the Church, since she is the God-etched icon of the Church in all her perfection. Though Mary was given an absolutely singular vocation to give flesh to God, we the baptized are given a share in all that she was and is. She is spes nostra, “our hope.”

So much to say! Let me share a few scattered musings I wrote in my journal over the weekend praying on this Feast Day. These thoughts reiterate my core theological interests that I have shared here again and again.

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The Virgin Mary, who is the highest honor of our race, is a laywoman. She embodies the fullness of the baptismal vocation and mission given to the lay faithful. She was a daughter of Israel, a small town girl, a wife, a mother, a teacher and disciple of her Son.

Her identity is wholly defined by her baptism, though her baptism was utterly unique. Her immaculate conception in the womb of St. Anne was a proto- and prevenient baptism, which not only preserved her from sin but regenerated her as the New Eve. In this baptized conception, Mary was saved by the death and resurrection of her Son not yet conceived in her womb. Think on that for a moment. God, who created time, revealed in Christ the capacity of time to accommodate itself to God’s eternal saving plan in which Christ is its Alpha and Omega. As the Catechism says:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (#491).

Mary was redeemed by God her Savior in a way unlike the rest of us. She was saved to the roots of her being (sanatio in radice), freed from every effect of sin, so she could give birth to the all-holy God with full freedom and be a sign of hope to humanity that radical redemption is our calling and destiny. Like her Son (Heb. 4:15), she suffered the buffets of sin, while preserving her innocence, even sharing in Christ’s death mystically at the foot of the Cross and physically at the end of her life, before being raised into bodily glory.

As with us, her baptism conferred on her a share in the offices of priest, prophet and queen.

As priest, she consecrated the world to God by her soulful ‘Yes’ that permitted God to enter and penetrate into the heart of creation to consecrate the world to God (John 17:19). In her, the Father united all things to Himself through His and her Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The devotional tradition of consecrating oneself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is a magnificent means of joining our baptismal priesthood to hers, and sharing in her prototypical ‘Yes’ to God. The world, which emerges as freshly created at every new moment in history, awaits our yeses in order to share in the supreme act of consecration one-for-all effected by Jesus in Mary. Each Yes we pronounce allows the coming of our rescuing-God, who longs to make all things new. Like her Son (Heb. 7:25), Mary spends her heaven doing good on earth by ceaselessly interceding for our pilgrim Church marching through this valley of tears.

As prophet, she proclaims and enfleshes the Word of God by her life. Simply by who she is, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and magnifies God her Savior. She alone bears the Word of God in its totality, and so she “who pondered these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19) is the absolute summation and embodiment of the living Tradition. Therefore, she alone is fully catholic, possessing a universal vocation of prophetic witness to all humanity, showing us what it means to be wholly defined by the eternal Word of the Father. As Ark of the New Covenant, she bears within herself “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which is also the vocation of the entire Church. Because Mary is a fully catholic human person, she is our universal Mother.

As queen, she has been commissioned to cooperate with Christ the King in His redemptive governance of all creation, leading all into the new creation. She bears the whole Church’s Christ-given mission to wage “paschal combat” against the powers of darkness. She whose “let it be done” echoed God’s “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3; Luke 1:38), who is Queen of Light, has been given authority over the Prince of Darkness, crushing him with her beautiful feet that still hasten to carry the Gospel of God, Jesus Christ, to all she is sent to greet (Gen. 3:15; Is. 52:7; Luke 1:39-45).

I remember in my Mariology (theology of Mary) class in grad school my professor said, after discussing the “singular privileges” of Mary,

In Judaism, the idea of being chosen does not mean being “special” or “better than” the un-chosen, but it means to be invited to shoulder a mission for the rest of humanity. The gift of being chosen by God always means to be chosen to serve as God’s instrument to the rest, and ‘To whom much is given much will be expected’ (Luke 12:48). Every one of Mary’s singular privileges — Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, Assumption — empower her to Mother each of you, in union with Christ, our Father-forever (Isaiah 9:5), in becoming worthy sons and daughters of God. And as we see New Eve, New Adam becoming such on Golgotha (John 19:26-27), we also remember that all privileges require great sacrifice. This is lex caritas, “the law of love.”

In her assumed, risen and glorified body, Mary gives witness not only to our future bodily resurrection, but also to the hope of the entire material world of being lifted up by us into the new creation. In Mary, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium — along with the human culture she inhabited and that inhabited her — were transfigured in the new creation. In other words, the “bread and wine” of her life was taken up into eternity and transubstantiated (1 Cor. 15:52). By her — and our — free consent to concelebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven and earth, we confer on all of creation the hope of glory (Rom. 8:18-30). On today’s gloriously joyful Feast, Mary stands as the perfect fulfillment of those extraordinary words of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #39):

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father the kingdom.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Let me conclude with the prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:

O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.

Amen.

St. 16670 dies for 5659

Franciszek Gajowniczek

St. Maximilian Kolbe

The head of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) project that studied the Shroud [the alleged burial cloth of Jesus] in the late 1970’s, when asked if he had a religious experience during the night he spent alone studying the linen cloth, said: “I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know if I could say I had a religious experience. But what struck me throughout the night was the disconnect. Between the face and the body. The body imaged on the Shroud is that of man who had been brutally beaten and tortured. But the face? It’s the face of serene confidence. They just don’t match.”

Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, whose feast day is today, was killed on this day in 1941 in a starvation bunker at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was cremated on August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption and was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 1982 as a martyr of charity.

The two numbers in the subject line above are the Nazi’s dehumanizing arm-branded I.D. codes for Fr. Kolbe and for the man he exchanged places with, Franciszek Gajowniczek. After a man had escaped from Auschwitz, ten men were selected to die of starvation as a reprisal for the crime of escaping. Gajowniczek, who was a Jew with a wife and children, was among those chosen to die. Fr. Kolbe, witnessing Gajowniczek’s wailing cries over the fate of his family if he died, said to the Sub-Commandant, Karl Fritzsch: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” The offer of exchange was accepted and Kolbe was sent to the starvation bunker. As the Pope said in his homily for the canonization:

Maximilian did not die but “gave his life for his brother.” In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love. And in this human death of his there was the clear witness borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.

Most remarkable, as with the accounts of St. Edith Stein’s last days, was the manner in which Fr. Kolbe faced the agony of starvation. He was the epitome of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:21 — “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Let me offer you an account of Fr. Kolbe’s last days given by an eyewitness, Bruno Borgowiec, for your meditation.

The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.

Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.

Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this, I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.

They just don’t match.

“Already you knew my soul” — Psalm 139:14

“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.” ― George MacDonald

The two mysteries of faith that lead me into existential dizziness whenever I begin to reflect on them are (1) God has no origin, beginning or source, other than Himself [can’t think on this longer than a minute or so without brain shut-down], and (2) when my spiritual soul came into existence at the moment of conception, ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” God thought specifically of me in that creative act of His infinite mind. As a priest once said to me, as he was trying to encourage me in the face of deep despondency to return to a primal sense of gratitude for simply existing, “When you were conceived, God said ‘Let there be Tom.’ And in you a whole new universe came to be that will never cease to be. Think of the pinpoint intentionality of that act of love. Bathe in it.”

In fact, when I was 8 or 9 years old I recall vividly having a “freak out” moment every time I thought about the fact that I was me, Tom, that I had a completely unique vantage that was me, and wondered what that even meant. Still can’t think on that one for long.

I always quote Pope Benedict to this effect, “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” If we owned that truth, it would mark a revolution. 15th century German Dominican, Meister Eckhart, wrote profoundly about a form of mysticism that was a journey into the mind of God, back into the original and eternal thought of God out of which I emerged. Of course, this is really nothing more than the essence of vocational discernment: “Who am I in you, O God?” Once we know who we are, we then know who we should be.

Faint.

I once was invited to attend a Foster Parent Conference in Tallahassee years ago, and heard this amazing African American woman, somewhere in her 70’s, speak about the decades of service she and her husband had offered to orphaned children in Florida. She was Baptist and very vocal about her faith. She told us so many powerful stories, but I remember especially a line she spoke to all parents in the audience. She said,

You see, one thing we see again and again with these foster children is that they feel like a burden, unwanted. Many of them have heard, “I wish you were never born!” And they act out. But God has given you parents a great task! Do you hear me? [All: Yes!] I need you to see what I see, that He’s entrusted you with a most solemn responsibility. Greater than any other one in the whole of creation. He wants you to be Him for His children. Yes, I said His children, only on loan to you, stewards of His greatest treasures.

So you have to ask God every day when you wake up and before you go to sleep, “Father, what’s your dream for this baby? Who did you make him, make her to be? What message are they to bring the world that no one else ever could?” Let them know they are so special, unique, unlike anyone else that every lived or will live. But that’s not enough! Make them know well that with this gift comes great, great responsibility. Hold them accountable, challenge them, inspire them to be God’s dream for them. Help them discover God’s dream and run with it.

But first, you have to believe it about yourself or you’ll just pass along the hurt.

A harsh and dreadful thing

jtbarts.com

[I had planned to skip today, but when I was awakened this morning early this post was insistently knocking]

I was speaking with a friend the end of last week about family dysfunction and the depth of pain it can engender. She said, “It’s easy to feed the poor and walk away from them; or to do good for strangers and feel good about it as you go home for the evening; but when it’s your messed-up family you have to deal with, well, there’s no getting away. You can talk about love, but when you have to do it with people permanently connected to you who despise you, it’s really hard.” Then she quoted this line from Dostoevsky I’d never heard, but now will never forget — “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

After she left, I sat in silence for a while just processing. She’s the kind of person whose words, because they are so sincere, just cut to the heart.

I’ve often quoted Thoreau’s line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” A religious order priest I knew in south Florida introduced me to it when he was telling me about his priestly work in what Pope Francis now calls the “ministry to the margins.”  This priest worked in tandem with several drug rehab facilities to help the families of recovering addicts find support and a way forward. He told me that among the families he dealt with were middle class to upper middle class families who, to outsiders, seemed to be happy, ideal, functional families. They had become masters of illusion. But what the addiction crisis had done is force them to drop the facade and face the depth of dysfunction and pain. “In fact,” he said (and I will never forget this),

if I spend any time in compassionate listening with anyone — of any socio-economic class, race or creed — very soon a story of pain or hardship will surface. Suffering doesn’t discriminate. I’m not a psychologist or a social worker, and don’t pretend to be. My ministry is simple: help people to get real, stop glossing over the stink in their life, get real with Jesus and invite Him into the mess. Most people, in my experience, don’t see faith as anything more than a stop-gap for their crap. Maybe they say a prayer to God when things go south, but they keep God at a safe distance. At best religion dulls the pain like Advil or distracts with some nice hollow cliche like, “It’ll all work out in the end.”

I tell them: Let’s get real with God. Jesus wants to get His hands dirty and deal with the rot. He’s not impressed with your stiff upper lip. And Jesus makes “getting real” easy for me, when I can just take out my crucifix and ask them to hold it, look at Him and speak to Him honestly from the heart about their whole world of hurt. 99% of them have never done anything resembling that before. Yet that’s what Christianity’s all about! Marx called out this kind of faith as an opiate for people. Faith’s not an opiate, it’s open heart surgery.

He said when he got out of seminary and was first a priest, his hyper-idealism made him think people should be a lot farther ahead in their faith walk than they actually were. So his homilies missed the mark and he’s sure most probably tuned him out — “Not for me.” But over the years, and especially since he began his work with addiction recovery, he saw that helping people just take “the next best step” (his favorite ministry line) could contain the brightest flashes of heroism. Sometimes, he said, it’s heroic to simply honestly acknowledge to myself how messed up my family of origin is; or to speak to my sibling in a civil tone; or speak the words “I forgive you” to my dead uncle for his past crimes against me; or pray for a parent who did me harm. “I tell them,” he continued, “sometimes just these tiniest of steps, when we can manage them, can be immense signs of grace at work in us. Things to be proud of. Before the face of God, these seeming nothings can surpass in merit all the gushing virtues in another person who seems to be so naturally capable of more ‘quantitative’ goodness than I’ll ever be.” He went on to say:

Once when I was con-celebrating a Mass, I heard a priest say in his homily, “only bring God your best when you come to Mass.” I got what he was trying to say, but I wanted to punch him then and there. I told him after Mass that, by saying things like that, he’s cheating people out of hope. Who would ever want to approach God if that’s what it took? Good God. Become a saint and then come to God with your perfect offering. Who needs that? That’s religion for choir boys. I told him he needs to tell them that God dances over tiny mustard seeds of goodness and faith we bring, and doesn’t need us to bring towering sequoias. If there’s anything the crucifix teaches, it’s that God can take the worst we’ve got. He takes sinners like us who are willing to show Him the way it is, even as we don’t like the way it is and want to be better. But for now, God, this is what we’ve got. And He’s pleased.

But without God being invited into our skeleton closet, life’s hell. True? Living in all your crap without hope that there’s a Higher Power out there who cares, who’s ready to get dirty in your screwed up world, and who has a will and a way to take you, raise you up from where you’ve fallen? I don’t know how unbelievers press on without faith. It’s hard enough when you do believe. But when people have a faith that tells them they have to have their shit together first before they can come to God? I’d prefer atheism. And in that church you’ll just have the front-row pews full of a few people living in fantasy land.

A hard-core priest. Servant of a God who is a hard-core realist, which is really the core message of the cross. Realism. God’s love is real, evil in the world is real, therefore God’s love hangs on a cross as a corpse filled with hope in a Father whose will is to raise the dead, to conquer death and hell. God is anti-Pollyanna, since love is the ground of all reality. In Christ, dwelling deep in the pit of hell on a Passover Sabbath, love is a harsh and dreadful thing

for love is strong as death,
jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

He who descends into hell with us, ascends on High for us. Come, O Lord, grasp my faltering hand, enter my darkness, and lead me out of the abyss into your Kingdom.

Solomon the Wise

“God Speaks to Solomon in a Dream” bibleencyclopedia.com

Yesterday we had a faculty retreat to begin the new academic year. It was such a breath of fresh air for all of us, and a nice reunion as most faculty were away for the summer. Here are my sprawling and free-flowing notes I wrote out at the end of the retreat after everyone left. I’ll not post tomorrow because of the length. For what they’re worth…

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Our retreat director began with the story in 1 Kings 3 of God asking young Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What a frightening request! A divine blank check! As one of my colleagues read this passage aloud, I immediately thought of the Latin dictum, Lex orandi, lex crediendi, “the law of prayer, the law of belief.” Solomon’s response to that open-ended offer would lay bare his faith life and his character as King, since we pray as we believe. “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21). Was Solomon, like his father David, really a man “after the heart of God” (cf Acts 13:22)? It was as if God were asking, “Solomon, son of David, do you love me above all things? Now, let’s see how you pray…”

I kinda wished the reader had stopped for a minute after God’s offer so we could’ve formulated our own response… What would I ask of God?

Solomon passed with flying colors! “The Lord was pleased,” the text says. Why? Because his prayer sought from God what was dearest to God’s heart. He, God’s vicar, sought from God the gift of wisdom to rightly govern His beloved people, and did not seek gifts for himself (long life, riches) or the death of his enemies. Solomon’s prayer recognized that, as king, he was God’s servant. His was only a borrowed glory, a shared governance. So he sought God’s wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge of God’s will (i.e the Law) that is applied through prudential judgment to order one’s own life and the lives of others in accord with that will. The king loves the King principally by ruling faithfully in the King’s stead. Wisdom means ordering our steps in His Word.

[lyrics below]

Jesus, the New Solomon and Wisdom incarnate, teaches us that perfect wisdom is found in the Great Commandment, as charity is the fulfillment of the Law. The wise leader, therefore, shepherds the rabble of sinful humanity into the order of charity, forming them into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). A parent, priest, principal, president tasked with this mission knows it is a brutal, thankless, exhausting task, indeed.

I just noticed Jesus’ thrice posed question to Simon Peter (John 21:15-19) bears a striking resemblance to God’s question to Solomon. Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Of course, Simon Peter vehemently insists that he does love Jesus, but Jesus presses the question further by drawing out its implications — if you love me you will govern those I love, wisely, according to my will: “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.”  And in John 21:18-19 Jesus reminds Peter where the wisdom of charity leads every leader:

When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter passed on the soul of this sage advice to his pastoral successors in 1 Peter 5:1-4. A brutal, thankless, exhausting task, as Pope Francis can no doubt attest. Yet it is a sublimely divine task, as God’s providential laboring love ceaselessly governs, guards, guides and provides for our sorry lot. The burden of leadership, carrying others to God (Numbers 11:14/Luke 15:5) offers ample opportunity for intimate union with the Good Shepherd in our exhaustion, making wise leaders into bleary-eyed, weary-headed, aching-shouldered mystics. Especially: speaking to God about those under our care, tirelessly presenting their needs to Him, is profoundly sanctifying as it very immediately mingles our concern for them with His. And in the end, sanctity is all about melding the whole tangle of our inner and outer lives with His, into a grand + alignment.

It’s why “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to justice, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

A woman I know who has five children, four with serious to severe disabilities, texted me earlier this summer asking for prayers after some rough days they’d had with hospital visits. I texted back: “Man, y’all have had a hard stretch this year.” She replied, “Yup, they exhaust me and wear me out. But God knows I’ll take exhausted with them over rested without them any day.” I texted back the Hebrew word for worship, Shâchâh, which means “face in dirt,” and told her I was doing that after reading her text. For me, heroism makes me want to #1 repent and #2 worship God for giving the world such people.

Yesterday afternoon I met another woman, the cashier at a gas station. When I asked her how she was she said, “Tired and blessed.” I said, “I love that you said ‘and blessed,’ and not ‘but blessed.'” She then told me she worked two other jobs, that her husband died last Fall, leaving her to raise three children and her deceased brother’s son. I said, “What keeps you going?” She replied with such a natural ease, pointing to the cross on her neck chain, “Real simple. Him. He did it for me so I can do it for Him. My kids know I’m only as good as I’m in His grace.” My daughter who was with me said as we walked out, “Wow that was totally random and amazing.”

Shâchâh. 

As Fr. Tom Hopko said, “Some saints are pillars of the world, while others, like me, become saints by allowing those saints to lead us along the way. It’s why devotion to saints in the Orthodox church is absolutely essential. It’s God’s way of keeping us totally inter-dependent. If all were pillars we wouldn’t cling to each other. A Christian alone is no Christian.”

As I sit with all of this here, I can’t help but reflect on the gravity of my vocation as a family man and as a teacher. I have to be like Solomon and ceaselessly beg God for wisdom and to intercede in prayer for those entrusted to my care, who are under my authority or subject to my influence. When I was on my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my 80+ year old spiritual director called me on the carpet for not praying for my wife and children by name every day. I told him I always mentioned “for my wife and family” when I prayed. But he wasn’t buying it and retorted, “The Shepherd wants names, son. And He wants details.” He continued, “God has entrusted them to your care, Tom, and He will call you to account for it. You can’t manage this one alone. You must realize that their welfare depends just as much on your prayer as it does on your supporting them in every other way. The closer people are to your circle of responsibility, the more serious is your obligation to daily pray for them by name, and pray for God to help you to serve them as they deserve. And,” he added, “you need to ask the Spirit for a double portion of wisdom and counsel because your responsibility is great and you know you’re not too bright when it comes to prudential matters.” We laughed, and then he said, “But I’m serious.”

He ended his loving reproval by saying to me, “Tom, what’s most beautiful to me about intercessory prayer is that even as you ask God to care for others, He invites you to be part of the care He gives. When you ask God to stir into action for others, you’ll feel Him stirring within you. So be careful what you ask for. You just might become it.”

When evening came, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds, so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” “They do not need to go away,” Jesus replied. “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:15-16).

Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz:

Our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness.

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Humbly, I ask Thee teach me Your will
While You are working, help me be still
‘Cos Satan is busy, God is real;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Bridle my tongue let my Words edify
Let the Words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight
Take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

CHORUS
I want to walk worthy
According to Thy will
Please order my steps Lord
And I’ll do Your blessed will
The world is ever changing
But You are still the same;
Please order my steps, Lord I’ll praise Your name

Order my steps in Your Word
Order my tongue in Your Word
Guide my feet in Your Word
Wash my heart in Your Word
Show me how to walk in Your Word
Show me how to talk in Your Word
When I need a brand new song to sing
Show me how to let Your praises ring
In your Word (2x)

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

REPEAT CHORUS ( 2 X )

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word