The Mass in Memoriam

Notre Dame Seminary & Chapel, New Orleans, LA

Yesterday, the Seminary I work at offered the community Mass as a memorial Mass for the repose of my father’s soul. My mom, wife and oldest son attended (our other children were unable to come).

Surrounded by the prayer, song and kindness of seminarians, priest faculty, colleagues and friends, it was an experience of the church as family that is beyond my power to adequately describe. For my 91 year old mother, it was, as she said after, “like being in heaven.” Yes, that’s it. “On earth as it is in heaven,” with heaven being anywhere God’s will is done.

God’s will?  John 17:21-23:

That they may all be 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.

For me, yesterday demonstrated how, when the church consistently lives the unity of love found in the Eucharist outside its liturgical celebration, the Mass itself becomes more readily transparent as the time “when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” When we live the unity of love outside the Mass, St. Irenaeus’ words back in 180 A.D. are confirmed, “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.”

For all the prayers, Masses offered, cards, emails, texts, comments, calls, flowers, visits, I, my wife and children, my mom, my step mom and siblings are exceedingly grateful. And for my dad, above all, may all of these acts of faith, hope and love speed him into the fullness of the new creation, where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

I will end with the setting of Psalm 23 that was sung at yesterday’s Mass.

The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.
Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff comfort me.
Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me;
thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cu shall be full.
But thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen

Painful, but always fruitful

The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful. Sooner or later, we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter. — Pope Francis

Someone said to me the other day, after I asked them about how much time they take for quiet prayer, “Yeah, I’m just not a silence kinda person. I just get antsy.” I responded, “Me neither, which is why I have someone hold me accountable to making time every day for silence. For a person of faith, taking time for silent prayer is a grave obligation. The good news is, for Christians the harder obligations are to keep, the better.”

No struggle, no virtue.

For me, when I don’t start my day in silent prayer — however long it is — I lose my center of stability. I become what the Desert Fathers call “dissipated,” spread thin, scattered in focus, agitated, unable to remain attentive to the speed of life, present to the present moment, to God’s presence and to the person I am with.

I have found that this daily commitment to silent time, almost unlike any other single commitment in my life, is wildly assailed every day by temptations to shorten it, fill it with distractions or abandon it. And most of the temptations are to good things.

My spiritual director told me in 1993 that after 20 years of faithfulness to the practice, I will only then be able to judge its fruits fairly. Every year, I restart the 20 year countdown.

One thing I can say with absolute certitude after 25 years of consistently trying to be faithful to my director’s counsel: someone out there does not want me to do it. As the Catechism #2725 says, the Tempter “does all he can to turn man away from prayer.” But, thanks be to God, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Whatever you resolve as both reasonable and generous in your commitment to open a space of time in your life for silence before God, remain relentlessly faithful to it. For a long time. Your resolve will always be tested, but, to quote Churchill, “Never, never, never give in.”

No other single spiritual practice has born more fruit in my life.

Especially in this Age of Distraction, I highly recommend it.

Stern as death is love

My lover belongs to me and I to him.
He says to me:
“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.” — Song of Songs 8:6-7

I met a woman while I was flying back to New Orleans from New England a few weeks ago, and she was telling me about her deceased husband’s slow decline into dementia. Our conversation began after I told her I had just spent time at an institution for dementia patients. After tearfully describing the long and agonizing journey she had walked with him, she said,

Those years redefined love for me. Jeff’s decline demanded from me the willingness to make another person your center of gravity in a way I had never known. Dementia took away the man I knew and asked me to love him just as much. No, much much more.

I remember a few weeks after he stopped knowing who I was, which totally devastated me, I went to see our pastor to get emotional and spiritual help. He referred me to a Christian counselor, but he asked me first to do something that made all the difference for me. He said, ‘Why don’t you renew your wedding vows again this Sunday so you can recommit to him at this new stage in your marriage?’

We did it, and though Jeff was not totally aware of what we were doing, he had a lucid moment during the service. I could see in his eyes he knew it was me. That’s what I clung to over the next two years.

What a timely gift to me she was. I wanted to kiss her feet. Then the other day Patti sent the kids and me a story on cnn.com. A perfect capstone to this woman’s witness to me. Click here.

+ + +

I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotten deck, I promise
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotten deck, I promise
I won’t run away no more, I promise

Criticism:Prayer

Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw love out. — St. John of the Cross

The older I get, the more I meet people, the more convinced I am that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace. The only thing we can do about people is to love them. — Dorothy Day

I have mentioned this before. Years ago, a priest in Confession gave me a lifelong penance. It was startling to receive a life penance!

He gave me a ratio of prayer to criticism, “from now on, for the time you spend criticizing anyone behind their back, justly or not, you are to pray for them in a certain proportion of time afterward.” He argued, “Once you identify an evil in someone, like the Good Samaritan you have now assumed the obligation to tend to their wounds, carry them to the Inn and pay for their care. And if they wrong you, all the more, as the Lord commands us to forgive those who wrong us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who do harm to us. By your prayer, which can always be done, you must become their advocate before God. This is what the Lord did on the cross. You be the man you want them to be, and you’ll do them the greatest good.”

I like to contemplate the holiness present

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. — Pope Francis

Yes, this is it. Descriptions of the truest soul of holiness, charity. Charity, which is the love with which God loved us in Christ. Holiness is when our love synthesizes, harmonizes, mixes, fuses with God’s love, and then overflows our cup into unsung acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holiness is what St. Thérèse manifested when she said, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.” Because ecstasy, from ek histanai, means “to stand out of yourself.” Get out of yourself, over yourself, and into God and your neighbor.

My wife loves to say that for her the premier sign of holiness in others is found in people who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning they don’t have self knowledge, but that when you are with them, things don’t turn back on them but on others. The exude, in a disarmingly natural way, other-centered love. The relationship of such unaware saints with God is wholly consumed with the welfare of others. Like St. Paul: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Or like the Lord Himself who, rapt in an ecstatic prayer with His Father in John 17, thinks only of us.

Us.

What a magnificent thing that God’s love, epitomized in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, is not competitive. Rather, God delights most when we make our love for Him all about the people around us. Including our parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, enemies. Especially our enemies. God’s favorite way of being loved is through the enemy, the one we find most disagreeable, irritating, objectionable, repulsive. As God the Father said to St. Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you.

This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.

May we take one step today toward this holiness, which the revolution of love.

Requiescat in pace

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It has been a while! I have missed writing. Like being away from a group of friends that I am used to talking with often.

Life has been full of late.

My father, Edmond Neal, died on Tuesday of this week. Above is his photo from 30 years ago. He was 88.

Saying goodbye to my father, face to face, was one of the most painful and profound moments of my entire life. I am not ready to write on any of it now, but do earnestly solicit your kind prayers for his soul, for my mom and step mom, for our whole family and for all those who grieve his passing. Thank you.

My step mother insisted that I share in my teaching what I learned from my final time with dad, and so I will. Some day. I will try to get writing again on other things very shortly, as I catch my breath.

“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival
and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once a poor man,
may you have eternal rest.”

Sigrid, Raw

[had this unfinished post in my drafts. i recall it was fun to write. felt inspired to post. be back next weekend.]

If I show I’m fragile
Would you go ahead and find somebody else?
And if I act too tough, know that I care ’bout you
I’m honest, no offense

No, I could never fake it
Like players always playing
Arrest me if I hurt you
But no apologies for being me

I am now a huge Sigrid fan, thanks to my daughter who introduced me to her last week. Sigrid is a Norwegian singer and songwriter who just hit the pop scene last year.

I like her because she is, as Maria says it, “authentic, honest and quirky.” Her music is not hyper-produced, the lyrics are plain, direct and reflective, and her look is natural. I hope she retains all of that.

I especially liked the song Raw, because it made me think of my wife. Patti, for those who know her, pulls no punches. What you see is what you get. She is truthful in the extreme, which is what I have always loved most about her. Whether it’s pointing out that I need to take a second shower before giving an evening lecture, calling me on the carpet for some inconsistency, or grabbing me by the tie and saying (when she saw I was filling my early morning prayer time with work), “I need you to be a man of prayer!” — she is, for me, grace in my face.

Patti is truthiness with lipstick and high heels. Once when I praised her for this quality, she said, “Well, when we got married I did say ‘I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad!'”

But the greatest part of her honesty is that it goes both ways — she welcomes it as much as she offers it. And that is something I find very rare in life, people who invite and welcome honest feedback. She will often say, “You don’t need to protect my feelings. I need to hear your perspective.”

But at the bottom of all such radical honesty — nakedness before the other — is unconditional trust. There can be no real honesty if you don’t have that in a relationship, don’t have the mutual understanding, guarded by love, sealed by a promise that the other person will never use your weaknesses against you; will never intend you harm; will never betray you; will never leave you, no matter what. Only when love is steeled by such a promise can you really get down and dirty, dig deep, be wholly free to be yourself and allow the other to be the same.

Of course, even with the best of intentions, without ill will, we do hurt each other. Reality. But even here the commitment to honesty rescues us, as I know I can admit my failure, my sin against her with unvarnished honesty and she will receive that and forgive me. Will give forgiveness which is not owed or demanded, but freely given to an unworthy recipient.

And let me say that kind of forgiveness brings you to your knees. Breaks your stony heart. Calls you out of your mediocrity toward the better. Honest love is a costly love, is a paschal love “caught up into divine love [that] leads the spouses to God with powerful effect.”*

So yes, it’s true. She, I just want to be raw.

*Gaudium et Spes #48