Uneven

Periodically, I let my readers know when I likely will not be posting for a time. I do that as a courtesy,  as I am gratefully aware that some of you read my posts regularly. This week will again be particularly hectic, so I likely will not post until the coming weekend.

As someone commented here last week, at times my ‘primary work’ by which I support my family takes precedence over this work of joy.

God bless you!

Playful Providence

I love the Jewish-Christian idea of divine providence, which the Catechism #302 defines very simply this way:

We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward perfection.

Combining the Latin words pro, “ahead” and videre, “to see,” providence’s “divine foresight” reveals history to be not simply the subject of blind chance, but as under the guiding watch of fatherly love that, in spite of the looming cross, ever-envisages a more glorious resurrection. That said, Catholic theology affirms that genuinely random chance is part of creation, fully compatible with a divine providence that allows the “space” required for the radical variables of chance and human freedom. As theologian Thomas Davenport puts it:

God’s creative power is such that the very powers that allow a creature to act and to cause, even to cause contingently and by chance, depend at every moment on His sustaining power. Whatever happens in the world, whether it is a radioactive decay, a biological mutation, a decision to sin, or a decision to praise Him, does not catch God by surprise. In fact, He gives His creatures their existence and their natures that allow them to decay, to mutate, to sin, or to praise.

For me, such a view of history is far more thrilling to contemplate than either a predestining providence that controls all things like a puppet on a string or a providence-less universe wherein history blindly presses on without hope of a final resolve into beauty. The first makes for a monstrous view of God who enslaves creation and the second makes for an ultimately meaningless, purposeless view of history. The Jewish and Christian universe, however, is filled with all the tensions of drama and surprise, mystery and faith, terror and eager hope of a labor and delivery room.

And with play.

All of this came to mind because of remarkable coincidence that happened last week, which I will recount for you in brief. A little background. Twenty-three years ago my wife and I fell in love. I remember precisely the place and time. We were in St. Augustine, Florida on a mini-pilgrimage to the holy sites there, in particular the Nombre de Dios mission with its tiny Our Lady of La Leche Shrine dedicated to Mary nursing Jesus. As Patti and I walked toward the two-hundred and eight foot tall cross marking the location of the first Mass celebrated by the Spaniards in Florida in 1565, I remember vividly looking at her face for the very first time with romantic love. We had been simply friends before that for years. Later that evening, after dark, we decided to visit the Shrine chapel to pray. The gates were locked, so we jumped the fence and went into the chapel. The alarm went off! So we prayed very quickly, and I consecrated our still very secret love to God and our Lady, and then we sprinted off.

It’s a wonderful memory she and I love to revisit together, and over the years of our marriage we would return to that Shrine chapel many times to pray for the gift of a child or to grieve our miscarriages.

Back to last Friday. Patti had been gone all week at a conference and I was feeling especially lonely that day. During the morning while I was working, I texted a friend of ours in New Orleans to wish him a happy birthday. He knows nothing of our St. Augustine history or the “shrine alarm” story. He responded to my birthday text at once, “Tom, so kind. I’m here at this chapel. NOW in St. Augustine. Will say a prayer for you and the family.” I assumed he was referring to a parish in New Orleans called St. Augustine, until he texted me a moment later the picture I included at the top of this post. A photo of Our Lady of La Leche Shrine.

I was flabbergasted and audibly reacted in the coffee shop: “WHAT?!” Two elderly men across from me fell silent and stared. I said, “Sorry, just an amazing coincidence.” I immediately texted him back to share the significance of his text to me, and he replied, “What!!???!! Wow. Mass at noon. You both will be in our intentions. So crazy. Right!!!! Literally. [You texted my your birthday wish] the exact moment we walked into the chapel.”

What the heck? How? Why? I don’t claim to know. Coincidence inhabited by the Creator. As a person of faith it’s easy to see in such moments what I like to call God’s playful providence. Maybe its part of His passion — so evident in Scripture — for connecting events, revealing hidden patterns, painting wild masterpieces, telling crazy stories, writing seemingly-cacophonous symphonies, creating stunning beauty, disclosing a new order of existence under the form of surprise. Glimmers and sparks of a conspiracy toward Christ’s final resolve into beauty, what we Christians call the final judgment, the parousia, the consummation of history when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” On that Day, evil will be definitively judged, love will conquer all, every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new. The work God first began in the Virgin’s womb, nursing at her breast, will be brought to glorious completion in an eternal wedding feast.

Yes, right, a wedding feast that for us began in a Shrine as we ran.

How grateful I am that the Bridegroom chose last Friday to grant me a glimpse of His “divine disposition toward perfection” in my bride, and through the text of a dear and unsuspecting friend on his birthday.

Lead Thou me on.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Should lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life. — Bl. John Henry Newman

Look up!

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[Because of a blitz work demand through Saturday I will force myself to pause! Matt. 21:29]

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ― Robert Frost

I have two kinds of writing I do: Required writing and kindled writing. (Those are my terms, by the way). Required writing involves deadlines and duties, like writing a lecture for a class or an article for the upcoming newsletter. Required writing constitutes quantitatively the vast majority of my writing work, because it has to do with ever-present demands of work or volunteer responsibilities I have taken on. Then there’s kindled writing, which emerges in the moment, is driven by circumstance, impulse or a flash of unexpected insight. That’s what I write here, exclusively. If this blog ever became mandatory, deadline-driven or made money it would cease to be what it is. NealObstat is the writing that allows me the luxury of expressing my inner stirring sense of wonder and awe in the most natural, spontaneous, fun way. And, at least in terms of conscious awareness, it gives me the most intense sense of God’s presence.

It’s what the spiritual authors sometimes call scriptio divina, ‘divine writing.’ When one ‘writes in prayer,’ they say, he becomes much more open to intuitive-symbolic forms of knowledge than is available through discursive, analytical writing. When I write in prayer, in the freedom of wondering ‘without a why,’ many more fresh insights are allowed to emerge. At least for me.

Now let’s be clear, I am not making any claim to divine inspiration or to the superiority of one form of writing over the other. Each has its role and God’s immediate action in anyone’s writing is always an ambiguous affair. And, though I distinguish these two writing styles, they often overlap with one another and are not sealed in tidy categories. But I love and cherish the opportunities I have for kindled writing and am exceedingly (heap on here any and all hyperbolic adjectives) grateful that readers of this blog engage my writing and make use of it for their own benefit. You give my thought wings.

Frequently I wake up at 3:00 a.m. and cry out: “You idiot! Why do you think anything you have to say matters?!” But I console myself with the thought that, inasmuch as what I say approximates God’s self-revelation in Jesus in His Spirit-filled Church, or gives testimony to the greatness of the extraordinary people I am blessed to know, it’s worthwhile. Then I pray the Jesus prayer.

Or I just re-read Numbers 22:21-38 and claim the braying jackass again as my patron saint.

Why am I writing all this? Because Monday I experienced in a striking way a sudden shift between required and kindled writing. I’d spent nine hours that day in required writing for various projects, lectures and courses I have coming up. Although writing is always a gift to me, the stress of deadlines has a way of squishing you inside. I was exhausted mentally as I left the building. I walked to my car with my eyes on the ground, staring mindlessly. As I took my keys out, I was suddenly startled by a whopping crackle of thunder that shook my insides. I looked up and everything outside and inside of me at once changed. The roiling black clouds wedged beneath the dark blue sky to the north, the gray veil of rain quickly advanced toward me, the bluish-white bolts of lightning linked heaven and earth, and the strong cool breeze descending from the core of the storm caressed my face with its clean hands. I fell to my knees and laughed. Anyone watching would have worried about me.

I realized at that moment how shallow my breathing had been all day as I hunched over my laptop and typed. I drew deep into my lungs the refreshingly fragrant cool air that was washing over me. All of this experience completely re-wrote my inner world in an instant, diluted the mental sludge and re-awakened a heart of wonder within me. What for a moment seemed like a future filled with insuperable demands suddenly seemed possible, or at least seemed hopeful. My widened horizons made room for hope, which demands space and which can only be satisfied by the sounds of God’s strident protest against the impossible. The word “capacious” sprang to my mind. I felt immensely spacious within, my narrow walls suddenly stretched big by this rogue, dark, threatening and unsought cumulonimbus.

How marvelous! Startled into the light by the darkness.  I thought of Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And all I wanted to do was sit down in the parking lot, take out my laptop and write. So many new insights came into me. But alas, another work meeting awaited. No time to write them out. But before I fell asleep tonight, I was determined to write out this reflection on the ‘feel’ of it all, at the risk of indulging my own solipsistic fancy. Hopefully in service to hope.

Thank you for walking with me.

No matter how narrow your world seems, look up and allow Him to surprise you. Anyway.

Good God and Bad Romance

[This is a post that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing in fits and starts over months and months. It’s long, as my posts go, but it’s time to let it go, it seems. St. Benedict, pray for us!]

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. — St. John Paul II

I was talking recently with a gentleman who is a marriage and family therapist about Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. We discussed at length the tendency among some wonderful catechetical initiatives in the U.S. to idealize the ‘wonders of sex’ in a Catholic marriage. Whether it’s the relationship-building power of Natural Family Planning (or ‘fertility awareness’ as I prefer to call it c/o Dr D. Cudihy) or the theo-erotically charged claims found in elements of the Theology of the Body movement (as opposed to St. John Paul’s actual teaching), there can be a “Gospel of Prosperity” feel to some of the promises made to Catholics, e.g. spiritually ecstatic supercharged sex that will leave you feeling more fulfilled in your marriage than any of those secular couples out there who don’t know what we know.

Really?

While it is unquestionably true that data shows couples who internalize a Catholic moral-theological vision of sex and marriage fare better overall in terms of things like marital stability and overall contentment with the goodness of the marriage relationship — along with other very positive effects — there is simply no magic equation between “doing it Catholic” and marital-sexual bliss. Just having right ideas in your head doesn’t mean your whole internal and external world suddenly approximates those ideas. Nor does doing the morally right thing mean it will automatically give rise to pleasure and happiness. The recognition and embracing of any truth is only the beginning of a long journey of integrating that truth into the complex realities of our thinking, feeling, behavior, relationships, commitments, etc. Now, in a culture that has made sexual pleasure into an end-in-itself, that idealizes orgasms as supremely life-fulfilling, or that markets (lucratively) sex with products and techniques that “guarantee” maximal sexual satisfaction without any negative consequences (or children), it can be tempting for evangelizers to mime the illusion and promise that faith offers the same results within its own moral-theological vision. “All that and more (without the bad stuff)!” But, anyone who has actually tried to live either the capitalist-hedonist illusion, or its Catholic mime, knows, if they’re honest, that sex in marriage yields very uneven results.

The simple truth of the matter is that sex is only part of the far more complex reality of marriage, of two different human beings who have chosen to join their very different selves into a shared experience of life. The choice to marry is itself extreme! Just think: a man and woman offering each other a total and exclusive self-gift of lifelong faithful love made for mutual benefit and for the good of those children they hope God will bless them with. So it is natural, it seems, to expect that sex would also in some way be an extreme experience of this enormous gift of love. However, the experience of sex involves and expresses the total real experience of real people in any given moment, itself hemmed in by innumerable limiting realities, i.e. health, psychological state, personal history, temperament, motives, location, time limits, ad infinitum.

Sex is the gift of the real self to a real other, not of the ideal self, and so requires all of the work and struggle and hard virtues that every other aspect of real married life requires to succeed. Sex sweeps up into itself everything else about us, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly. It does not acquire, by grace or by technique, a miraculous immunity from the larger contextual experience of who each spouse is. And like that larger life, sex is uneven and inconsistent and, in the Catholic vision, must always be about far more than merely personal or relational satisfaction. It’s about, among other things, love, justice, temperance, patience, new life, bonding, communication, reverence for the other, tenderness, trust, boundaries, the capacity to see life through the other’s eyes. It’s about a lot.

And sex, like the emotional life, serves as a loud and insistent primal cry from deep within to attend to other (often ignored) issues — things seemingly unrelated to sex — that require action if the marriage is to grow and flourish. Like emotional intelligence, sexual intelligence is very intuitive and bypasses the remarkable capacity of individuals or couples for rationalizing and self-delusion. While you can try to bypass sex’s insistent voice for a while, using psychological denial or alcohol or diversions or some such thing, eventually the truth your sex life was trying to tell you will surface elsewhere and demand your attention. Or your marriage.

Over the years, a number of men and women — Catholic and non-Catholic — have shared with Patti and me their trials and tribulations with sex in marriage. It is an honor to be allowed into that sacred space, and I tread with fear and trembling in terms of giving advice. Dear God, what can I say? I’m a theologian, not a therapist. Among these people, some struggle with a spouse insisting on using artificial contraception, some struggle with the challenges of using fertility awareness methods, some struggle with infertility, some struggle with each spouse’s very different approach to sex and physical intimacy, some struggle with finding time and space and energy in their very busy work-family lives for physical intimacy, some struggle with fear of another pregnancy (rational or irrational), some struggle with an inability to talk openly about sex with their spouse, some struggle with feeling sexually starved, some struggle with feeling sexually used, some struggle with being sexually apathetic, some struggle with feeling tempted to infidelity, some struggle with impotence or health issues that make sex difficult or impossible, some struggle with being pressured to have sex because it’s ovulation-time (or because it’s not ovulation time), some struggle with the too-fast move from affection to intercourse. I could go on.

Of course, every single honest couple would readily admit their own struggles, their uneven experience of sex, regardless of how prayerful or orthodox or open to life or holy they are. Sex is a participation in the larger reality of marriage’s self-giving, life-giving, grace-giving, co-laboring love — with an emphasis placed on the “part” of participation. Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.

My point is that sexuality in marriage is a fully human experience on every level, and when you marry someone, you marry a fully human, baggage-laden human. Sex is a struggle because life and love are a struggle. Marriage, for Catholics, is a Sacrament which is full of graces meant to aid the couple in allowing their unique experience of full-humanity to become redemptive and sanctifying. Grace builds on nature, heals and elevates nature from within. But, as God’s common practice goes, He does not ordinarily remove our struggles from us. Rather, He saturates our struggles in grace so that the struggle itself becomes no longer enemy, but friend. It becomes the primary means of being redeemed, and of growth in virtues like humility, trust, respect, tenderness, patience, fortitude, temperance and sacrificial love. As the Council of Trent put it, God leaves behind our yucky weaknesses (concupiscence) after Baptism “for the sake of the battle” (cf 2 Cor 12:9). In this case, God invites the couple to fight together to conquer sin, secure the lovely victory of love, and become saints together. St. Paul aptly describes saint-making marriage in Ephesians 5 as a Garden of the Cross, God’s privileged New Eden in which He chooses to (re)plant His sacrificial love in creation. Hence, God has planted the Cross in the middle of sex, making its greatest joy the struggle to love your spouse in body, mind and spirit.

The real joy of Catholic sex is getting a taste of the divine ecstasy of infinitely selfless, faithful, total, life-giving and sacrificial love that became incarnate and fumbled about with us. And that joy, when embraced within the whole of our reality — including God’s amazing grace — is deep, abiding and ecstatic. Ecstatic, I say, as it comes from the Greek contraction ek-statis, “standing outside yourself.” Sexual ecstasy in marriage is about making love. Not the cheap version used to describe an orgasm’s passing oxytocin rush, but really making love. Ecstatic love calls you outside yourself deeper into that one-flesh union you pledged in the beginning. Because in the final analysis, true joy is the fruit of being all about the other, about being into their joy.

“…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

This was certainly the rationale St. John Paul II used when he made this point:

Since in marriage a man and a woman are associated sexually as well as in other respects the good must be sought in this area too. From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved. This is implicit in the principle which we have already so thoroughly analysed, and which excludes exploitation of the person, and insists on love. In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.

Let me say to bring an end to this overly long and rambling reflection, all married people should have some trusted person (or couple) in your life with whom they can share their struggles. Whether as an individual or as a couple. Don’t keep your trails shrouded in secrecy. Wise friends, confidants and couples have brought me immense strength these years!

One husband once said to me as we talked about his struggles in marital intimacy, “It just shouldn’t be this much work.” I said, “Really? Are you kidding? Yes it should. Sex for us Catholics is about love, and love is damn hard work. If you think it’s just a cheap thrill, an easy fix, a quick path to happiness with her, you’ll be permanently frustrated. This isn’t Disney, it’s reality. So get to work…”

But if I had memorized the words of Pope Benedict, I would have said this instead:

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

Prune us, Lord, that Patti and I might, by our Yes, in sex and in life, become fruitful branches on the vine.

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

Aim for the chopping block

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Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block. — Annie Dillard

When I was in Arizona during the summer of 1989, a priest gave a homily at a daily Mass I attended that was just mind-altering. Daily Mass homilies are not usually known for that. I wrote it up later in my journal, with a slew of personal comments added. Here’s the part that caught me (edited to improve my grammar):

Human beings are meaning-makers, and what is unique about our quest for meaning is it’s largely future-oriented. We universally seek ends, goals. And all of us seek, whether we are aware or not, a final end, an overarching ultimate goal beyond the proximate pragmatism of the useful. In Christianity, we name this goal, the very substance of our faith, as ‘love.’ And Christians say that the premier sign we have laid hold of love as our ultimate goal is hope. Belief in love yields hope. This love, for a disciple of Christ, is first of all the love of God; for he loved us first. Then it is the double-sided coin of love for God and love for neighbor. This means love for God is not competitive but inclusive of every other genuine love, because God is the source of all good things and so in loving them we love their Origin. Our end is not God alone, but God and neighbor. Together these constitute our ultimate end, Jesus Christ.

A single mother I know holds two jobs to support her children. She gets up every day at 3:30 a.m. so she can be home in time for the children returning from school at 3:30 p.m. She gets exhausted, discouraged, feels lonely, frustrated. But, she says, because of her faith in God and her love for her children, she never regrets a single moment of her sacrifices. They are all enfolded in her single ultimate end. She knows God wants her to provide the best for her children, she trusts God provides and supplies for her lack. When she prays, she says, everything returns into focus and she is able to press on. Yes without these twin goals — what Jesus calls the greatest of the commandments — she would lose all meaning and hope in her life of hardship. Her sacrifices would lose their motive force and discouragement would overwhelm her.

In philosophy, they say that among the ways of causing things to happen, the ‘final cause’ — which is the final purposeful goal toward which something tends if it is to achieve fulfillment — in a sense pulls us toward itself with a powerful force awakened within us: desire. That woman’s children ‘pulled’ from her the resolve to renounce sleep and ease for their benefit. Every day, as you begin in prayer, reconnect your desires with their proper ends. All for Jesus, all for God and man in love. Remember as you pray why as a person of faith you do what you do, in the ultimate sense. Again and again do this, and it will get internalized by repetition rolling in grace. And ask God to fill all your thoughts, words and deeds with the love which knows no end, so that all things in your life might be consecrated to the God who is love. Then you will be a convincing witness to others that love alone gives lasting meaning, brings hope and makes all things new.

So today, right now, what is your ultimate goal that drives you on? What is your life’s motive force? If any of us are truly honest we will say: a mixed bag. Pleasure, approval, guilt, obligation, fear, money can displace love. In themselves, they are not necessarily bad. But when made ultimate they are dangerous, terribly fragile. Idols. The goal of the spiritual life, and the power of prayer and Sacrament, is to purify our motive desires and refine our goals so that more and more they become that of love. Love for God that is wrapped in love for our fellow human being and the good creation he has given us for our joy and his glory. Let us this day make our intention to do all things for love’s sake. For God’s sake. Amen.

That homily exposed in me for the first time an awareness of what drove me inside, and how far I had to travel before love would become my final cause.

When I first heard the song Light by the group, Sleeping At Last, I thought of that single mother singing to her child. This is the fodder of greatness for those who spend their lives on others in selfless love and see light — or bring light — where others might only see darkness. Lyrics below.

[Verse 1]
May these words be the first to find your ears
The world is brighter than the sun now that you’re here
Though your eyes will need some time to adjust
To the overwhelming light surrounding us

[Chorus]
I’ll give you everything I have
I’ll teach you everything I know
I promise I’ll do better
I will always hold you close
But I will learn to let you go
I promise I’ll do better
I will soften every edge
I’ll hold the world to its best
And I’ll do better
With every heartbeat I have left
I will defend your every breath
And I’ll do better

[Bridge]
Cause you are loved
You are loved more than you know
I hereby pledge all of my days
To prove it so
Though your heart is far too young to realize
The unimaginable light you hold inside

[Chorus]
I’ll give you everything I have
I’ll teach you everything I know
I promise I’ll do better
I will always hold you close
But I will learn to let you go
I promise I’ll do better
I will rearrange the stars
Pull ’em down to where you are
I promise I’ll do better
With every heartbeat I have left
I’ll defend your every breath
I promise I’ll do better
I will soften ever edge
Hold the world to its best
I promise I’ll do better
With every heartbeat I have left
I’ll defend your every breath
I’ll do better

Fostering Faith

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“Once a person learns to read the signs of love and thus to believe it, love leads him into the open field wherein he himself can love. If the prodigal son had not believed that the father’s love was already waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home – even if his father’s love welcomes him in a way he never would have dreamed of. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God; God has always already seen in him, the loveless sinner, a beloved child and has looked upon him and conferred dignity upon him in the light of this love.”― Hans Urs von Balthasar

I came across this quote the other day while doing reading for a class I will teach this Fall, and it made me recall a family I knew in Connecticut (when I was studying at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies) that took in foster children. The dad and I once talked over lunch about what that was like to foster parent, and the challenges it presented for his own children and for his wife; as well as the remarkable signs of transformation he had witnessed in the children they would take in. Each foster child, he said, had behind them a story of hardship, pain, rejection and loss, and many had developed harmful ways of self-protecting. He said, as I recall:

Sometimes the children proved to be so resistant and mistrusting that there was not much we could do to help them grow. They had hardened so much and knew only how to deceive and manipulate to get what they wanted. But most were receptive at some level. They wanted a family. It was a beauty to behold, once they knew they could trust, how they would open up. Like very tightly closed flowers that slowly unfold. The power of unconditional love allows a person a safe space to come out and discover the goodness in them and in life. I always think of the new children we would receive as hermit crabs that only very cautiously come out of their shell; and are easily frightened back in. You knew you’d gotten through to them when they would laugh and play with us, or  — my favorite — fall asleep in my wife’s lap. When you know love is free, you can finally be human. When you know it has a price, is conditional or involves a ruse or threatens betrayal, you lose your sense of humanity.

I was in awe.

This made me think of sociologist Rodney Stark’s analysis of the rise of Christianity in the first century. He argues that the primary power of the Christian movement to attract new members at such an astonishingly high rate was to be found not in brilliant marketing strategies or persuasive apologetics, but in the households of faith. Families, functioning like “little churches,” would welcome other people — especially orphans and the needy — and whole families into their ambit of faith. Hospitality was the most persuasive argument in favor of belief in a God who is love. Especially in this arena, it was the women in the households who were the front-line evangelists, employing their relational genius to invite people into webs of care and love and friendship. And that web was the natural habitat of Christian faith.

The most genuine Christian apologetic is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

The family allowed a privileged space for a concentrated, vibrant and living witness of what Christian charity looked like, felt like, tasted like in action. Christian households were seen as temples in which Christ dwelt and supped with family members and their guests. Christian homes were spaces wherein the centripetal ‘liturgy of marriage’ was celebrated as a gathering force for the scattered children of God. Christians did not look to evolving church institutions — parishes, dioceses — or to clerics to do the work of evangelization, but saw themselves, above all in their own homes, as ground zeros in which Jesus detonated His loving plan of redeeming the world into a single community of love under one God and Father.

Pastors and ecclesial leaders would do well to place their best energies in service to cultivating the domestic church, as it is true in every age that the future of humanity, and of the church, passes through the family. And families should look nowhere else other than there own home, where charity begins, to kick start the revolution of God in our (ripe for picking) age of alienation.

To heal, not destroy

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“God does not want us to understand the suffering of the innocent but to fight for a world in which the innocent no longer suffer.” ― Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

A few months ago, I was discussing the problem of evil with an elderly priest who worked among the “poorest of the poor” in Central America for almost 40 years. We were discussing “theodicy,” the problem of evil in the face of belief in a good, just and omnipotent God. He said to me (as I wrote later in my journal),

The poor have no time for speculation when evil happens. The problem is not ‘why,’ but what to do. You don’t find agonizing existentialists there wondering sleeplessly about meaning. Meaning is about action, about the life of the other. For them, meaning is found when you do your faith and see the results. Then you can sense God, or the Virgin, present and alive. They believe in order to understand.

When I first arrived there, the high infant mortality rate made tragic death an ever-present reality. When a child would die, the mother would wail, the women of the village would rally around her. Ritual weeping for 3 days, a weeping church. Praying. Clutching a crucifix. Flowers at the feet of the Virgin. A dignified burial, groaning, prayers, Mass, food for the family, then song. Life moves on.

Evil was very naturally redeemed by the people, because they understood that God does not simply come down to explain evil, but acts in an incarnate manner to conquer it. Acts in us. Peacefully, organically when we see ourselves as a living Body. If one might ask, ‘Where is God in all this?’ they might say, ‘Get to it and you’ll see.’ Ora et labora, pray and do.

The drive to make a better world is indomitable, and they wanted this as much as anyone. Yet for them it was hope in a perfect world to come that kept at bay the temptation to a hopeless protest that so often leads to violence. They were a peaceful people. You could see the leaven of the Gospel from centuries of faith. While they were never content with evil, they worked to heal it by taking it into the community’s life; which for them meant taking it up into God Himself. Never to destroy evil, but only to save what was good as a Body animated by faith in Jesus.

There’s something essentially Christian about that focus on action and community, a way that we’ve largely lost here as we relegate so many of our responses to evil and suffering to institutions and not to living, breathing, feeding, healing communities. Our parishes have to become alive with this ‘doing faith in community’ if culture is to change.