Wicked Holy Couples

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This was too fun to write.

A woman I know, who is engaged to be married, recently asked me for some book recommendations about married couples who lived a holy life. There’s a wide variety out there, of course, and some powerfully inspiring witnesses (e.g. one, two, three, four). But so many of the canonized holy husbands or wives, I realized, are really quite culturally distant from 21st century Americans; or were so profoundly shaped by the characteristics of consecrated Religious life that they don’t really helpfully embody what married holiness looks like for the regular guy and gal out there — the “secular geniuses” most of the lay faithful are called to be. You know, those tasked with sanctifying all things mundane, secular and ordinary, by becoming vividly colorful sacraments of God’s love for the world.

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St. Gianna and Pietro

In the process of thinking all this through, I spoke with my wife one evening about what kind of “hagiographies” we would love to read to help inspire us to holiness as a couple. It was a great conversation! And it involved a lot of laughter. Shortly after we spoke, Patti went to Walmart to get groceries and we began to text back and forth, developing a pithy description of the saintly couple we could look up to, to give us hope. We came up with a whimsical description that’s inadequate in scope but (for us) dead-on in essentials.

I don’t know canonized couples like this, but do know living-on-earth ones. They rock! I really hope some of them will be canonized one day. They are our models.

So here’s the final version we came up with in our last text volley. Not much to it, but when she hit “send” for the last time, I said: Posting it! Our idiosyncratic view of nuptial sanctity:

We need examples of married saints who knew their way around a cocktail happy hour, complete with the occasional cigar; who weren’t necessarily pious but prayed unceasingly; who raised good kids with generous hearts and normal problems, had passionate sex until the end, danced whenever they could, loved to laugh often, enjoyed the good things of this world as God intended, faced unabashedly their faults and sins with hope, lived heroic lives of sacrificial love in a thousand insignificant ways, were unshakably faithful to the church and in love with Jesus. They’re average enough to be accessible, weak enough to be real, great enough to look up to and holy enough to be fully human. But this is the real key: the icons of these holy couples would have to have crooked halos.

Other Blogs

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I rarely advertise things here, but today I wanted to make an exception. I would like to recommend two Blogs, involving two men I am blessed to call friends.

One is called Risking Reality, and it’s brand new. Austin Ashcraft is the author and his approach to life and faith is really lively, off-beat and intelligent. He’s smart, exceptionally personable, passionately faith-filled, guileless and is working on completing his M.A. in theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Here’s a taste of his writing:

Is this risk worth it? Can we really make sense out of this wild thing we call humanity, full of joys and sorrows, peaks and valleys, pleasant interactions with a stranger in line for coffee and 5 minutes later getting flicked off by the person in front of you in rush hour traffic for no reason, blinding city lights and desert star-filled skies, craft brews and natty light, relatives living long full years to the ripe old age of 104 and a friend unexpectedly dying of sudden heart failure at 22, free pancake day at IHOP and thousands of people dying every day from starvation, sunny days in suburbia and simultaneous sunny days of genocide in another hemisphere, life and death? How can we make sense of all of these extremes?

Try it out: https://riskingreality.wordpress.com/

The second Blog, The Catholic Outpost, is a Catholic treasury of articles and resources (a veritable Rome Depot), inspired by, among others, the capacious vision of Jordan Haddad. Jordan is a Catholic gentleman to the core, a serious intellectual and is pursuing his PhD in theology at Catholic University of America. And his love for his wife, Shannon, is really a wonder to behold. He and Shannon are expecting a daughter to be born soon so pray for them! Here’s the Outpost mission:

The Catholic Outpost is a community of theologians and evangelists who, out of love for Christ and his Church, seek to spread the Kingdom of God through various methods of evangelization and media. We seek to provide a provocative yet orthodox Catholic perspective to current events as well as accessible catechetical articles on different aspects of the faith ranging from Catholic dogma, Sacred Scripture, moral theology, Catholic social teaching, Church history, canon law, sacred art and music, and liturgy. The Catholic Outpost is meant to benefit the everyday Catholic in the United States of America who desires to continue his or her growth in Christian discipleship while at the same time learning how the faith relates to each and every part of his or her life in both private and public. We seek to form an intelligent and well-formed Catholic laity who can have a real impact upon our 21st-century American world.

Try it out: http://thecatholicoutpost.com/

P.S. sorry for the bad pun

“If any man would come after me…” — Luke 9:23

[my last post written on Thanksgiving break…]

Here is a catena aurea, a “golden chain” of quotes I created for myself a while ago as I was facing some hard personal challenges. Though I am far from acquiring these inner dispositions, they inspire me to greater things. Without such a call from God, I would be content in my mediocrity.

You would be very ashamed if you knew what the experiences you call setbacks, upheavals, pointless disturbances, and tedious annoyances really are. You would realize that your complaints about them are nothing more nor less than blasphemies – though that never occurs to you. Nothing happens to you except by the will of God, and yet His beloved children curse it because they do not know it for what it is. ― Jean-Pierre de Caussade

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. — C.S. Lewis

…those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. — St. John of the Cross

Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross. — St. John of the Cross

If we love with the love which he loved us; if we face the evil the way he faced it; if we admit it as he admitted it; if we take it upon ourself as he took it; if we forgive and have mercy and trust in the grace no matter how abandoned we feel by God — and we have to feel it to the end, if we’re going to be really a mature lover. That’s why the Cross and the dark night are all a part of our life. It’s not just cheery, rosey, ha-ha, God smiles, love you, you know — smiley-face-on-a-bumper or something, smiley sticker, “God is love”. It’s not a smiley face on a bumper sticker that shows that God is love, it’s Christ crucified that shows that God is love. And then when we enter into Him, when our body gets broken and our blood is shed, in love with Him, then we co-redeem the world in him. Because we’re called to be co-redeemers in him, co-sanctifiers in him, by the power that he gives us, which is the power of the cross. — Fr. Tom Hopko

Our Lord and Saviour lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.” — St. Rose of Lima

I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Cor. 12:9-10

[In response to my question, How will I know when I am humble?] The day that someone points out your faults and weaknesses and you are spontaneously grateful for the favor; or when things don’t go the way you want and you at once thank God; or when someone overlooks some good you’ve done and you feel content that good was done and God alone saw it; or when you’re with someone unpleasant and you find yourself drawn to be with them; then you will know you have begun to taste real humility. Self-less, other-more. — My spiritual director, February 8, 1991

Other than attempting to embody them, what commentary could I offer that could possibly be useful?

O Come, Emmanuel

Quid mirum si non comprehendis? Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus. “Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God.” — St. Augustine

I’ll never forget when my dogmatic theology professor quoted this text the day he introduced us to “apophatic theology.” Apophatic is another way of saying that everything we say about God we must at once also un-say (the literal meaning of the Greek word apophasis) to make it clear God infinitely transcends the confines of every analogy drawn from finite human experience.

Here is some of what he said that day, put through Neal Translate that turns bullet points into edible English (thank God I kept my class notes!):

God is intelligible to man, but never exhaustively so. He is absolute mystery, as opposed to a conditional mystery which can be solved. Mystery isn’t illogical, a mere violation of reason. It’s excessive, like a waterfall that transgresses limits. Mystery is always beyond our grasp, always more. The prefixes ‘supra’ and ‘hyper’ [over, above, beyond] should always be attached to every true conceptual claim about God. Apophatic theologians follow their profession of faith with, ‘Yes, true, but…’

Theologians should never dare pray without the humility implicit in those prefixes, should never convince themselves that their knowledge is adequate to God. 1 Samuel 5 is for all those theologians who think they can pray without the prefixes. We dare to speak of God in our language because He chose to speak of Himself in our language, but we can still never forget the infinite distance between God and creation

… In the mystical tradition, the saints say that it is love that takes us beyond the ideas about God, beyond even our un-saying of those ideas, into the Reality. Love itself, they say, is a form of knowing more profound than the intellect’s speculative powers. Love turns knowledge from a cold artifact into a fiery bridal chamber, and love alone effects union with the One who is known.

St. John of the Cross says that in the progression of spiritual growth, one should move from the dialectical rigor of scholastic theology to the contemplative rapture of mystical theology; which for him is evidenced by the move from prose to poetry to stammering to silence.

“Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.” –St. Isaac the Syrian

If we risk exile from our self-imposed limits out into the borderlands of our longing, we will meet the living God; the true God; the Unchained Mystery whose surpassing beauty is ever ancient, ever new.

O Come, God-with-us, and lead us beyond the limits of our minds, beyond language, through the infinite longings of our hearts into the fathomless depths of your boundless Mystery…

 

Be surprised by life

“We are called to enlarge the horizons of our hearts, to be surprised by the life that is presented each day with its newness. In order to do this we need to learn to not depend on our own securities, our own established plans, because the Lord comes in the hour which we don’t imagine.” — Pope Francis

The other day, as I did my morning prayer with the daily readings, I jotted in my journal:

If there is one thing that is consistent about God’s dealings with Israel, it’s that He seems to love catching us off guard. Knocking us off balance. Displacing our crutches. Severing our unhealthy attachments. Shattering our expectations in order to reset them. Inciting bewilderment and dizziness seems to be His strategy for eliciting wonder and awe, which are the preface to any genuine expansion of our horizons. But unlike the pagan gods, whose capricious liberty inspired fear, the God of Israel inspires trust because His freedom is bound to His truth; and His truth is justice and mercy and love (hesed we’emet). Therefore, God’s wild freedom that disorients us always does so in order to reorient us from our immediate obsessions toward our ultimate fulfillment; to turn us toward the East where hope greets the running dawn. ‘Do not be afraid,’ which is the anthem of the Scriptures, is said only to those whose circumstances seem fearful; who have cause for fear amid the chaos life can bring. Utterly astonishing: It is said to us by a God who, presiding over history from the Cross, uses the forces of chaos that threaten our well-being as the very means of revealing and effecting a future full of hope. No need to first rid oneself of problems — ‘if only things were different, then…’ — to trust this God. Per crucem ad lucem.* Christians are those who proclaim a God who has turned the world upside down, and faith is the only proper response among the dizzy. Acts 2:15ff; 17:6

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Try it — walk through the Wardrobe and risk bewilderment this Advent…

*Latin for “through the cross to the light,” with an awesome alliteration, i.e. pair crew-chem odd loo-chem.

Hope in a kind and weathered face

All of us need consolation because no one is spared suffering, pain and misunderstanding. How much pain can be caused by a spiteful remark born of envy, jealousy or anger! What great suffering is caused by the experience of betrayal, violence and abandonment! How much sorrow in the face of the death of a loved one! And yet God is never far from us at these moments of sadness and trouble. A reassuring word, an embrace that makes us feel understood, a caress that makes us feel love, a prayer that makes us stronger… all these things express God’s closeness through the consolation offered by our brothers and sisters. — Pope Francis

One of my earliest memories of sensing God’s presence was when I was four years old. We lived in Rhode Island at the time, and belonged to St. Margaret parish in Rumford. I remember the scene so vividly. I was sitting in the pew and my mom and siblings got up to go to Communion, but my mom told me to stay in the pew. She said, “We’ll be right back.” But for some reason I was terrified and believed they wouldn’t come back. As they walked down the aisle there was an elderly man sitting in the pew in front of me, and he turned around and said to me, ‘How old are you?” I remember holding up four fingers. Then he said, “Don’t worry, they’ll be right back. See, there they are. They love you very much and wouldn’t leave you alone.” For reasons I cannot explain, in my child’s mind, I absolutely believed this man was God. I can remember like it was yesterday the visceral association I made of safety and comfort with the idea God; all there in his kind and weathered face. I could also say now it was my first conscious taste of hope: the knowledge that God holds in the dark present the unshakable promise of a future dawn.

Mother Teresa said, “I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish. Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” The greatness of small acts of kindness should never be devalued in Christian thinking. It’s easy, when surrounded by problems of a staggering magnitude and complexity, to lose hope in the significance of my small life.

My spiritual director from the early 1990’s — a sainted priest — used to remind me all the time that every great act of heroism is always preceded by a thousand small and unnoticed acts of virtue; and that the role of the occasional extraordinary act of heroism is simply to hold in relief the higher value of ordinary greatness found in the thousand unsung deeds. And he would always remind me that if the re-creation of all things was effected by a naked, dying man, crucified on a pile of human remains along a public road; a man who spoke seven words of mercy that re-wrote the script of history and called a new creation into being, then my nothing-life, joined to His, was worth living with gusto. The God who loves to count my hairs loves the small stuff.

Let’s get on with it.

Giving Thanks

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Prayer is an aspiration of the heart. It is a simple glance directed to Heaven. It is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy. –St. Therese

In the progress of cosmic evolution, human beings seem to serve as the universe’s desire to look back on itself in amazement and say to someone or something, “Thank you” — My philosophy of nature professor in 1989 at the University of Hartford

Gratitude.

My wife always says that she can die in peace if she knows that, among other things, our children write thank you notes when they receive a gift from someone.

Gratitude is the hallmark of being Christian. Gratitude is the acknowledgment of an undeserved and beneficial gift received from another, and a pledge that the gift will be used well and for good. As such, it is an act of humility that takes nothing for granted, i.e. lacks a sense of entitlement. Gratitude is a faithful echo of generosity, and contains within itself an implicit demand to extend generosity to others in like kind. The grateful are not owners but stewards who know that all entrusted to them is from the All and for all. Think about it, people you know who are grateful people are also generous people, while ungrateful people lack generosity. They go hand in hand. Hell is anti-eucharistic.

As people of faith, our gratitude is founded on the belief that all good gifts are, without exception, from God (James 1:17). Even the evil which God permits, because it falls within His providential will to redeem a fallen world, contains within itself the potential for limitless good.  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). So when Jesus faced His execution, in the midst of the Supper He instituted to memorialize His choice to give away His life for us, He gave thanks to the Father (1 Cor. 11:24) from whom He eternally draws life (John 6:57). He faced His execution as an act of loving obedience to the Father and as an act of love for humanity, with gratitude flowing from the knowledge that enduring the evil of the Cross would bring us good; that enduring death would bring us life; that enduring condemnation would bring us pardon; et cetera. The heart of the Eucharist is an act of gratitude to a provident Father in the midst of utter catastrophe and defeat, for it is precisely there that God works His greatest work: the Resurrection.

The Orthodox liturgy says, after recounting the marvelous works of God in creation and redemption:

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

The heights of holiness are manifested very simply and quietly in the person who finds gratitude permeating every movement of their heart, seeing in all things (even those not seen!) God’s countless mercies and the power of God to bring out of every situation — without exception — a good that surpasses all we can ask or imagine. Christians are meant to be sacraments — visible signs — of this belief in the world. Christians are to be known by their love, and their love is most convincingly revealed by their gratitude. Though Christians struggle like everyone else with life, beneath it all they live out of the conviction that everything can be turned into a re-creative offering; that everything they receive and possess is meant to glorify God and benefit others (which is a tautology!); and that God lets nothing we do or endure go to waste. As long as we offer it up to Him in love and don’t — as a dear “second mother” of mine used to say to me when I was a teen — “throw it in His Face like a spoiled child.”

Love that.

These grateful people you love to be around because they give you hope, they lift your spirits, and when you leave their presence you want to be a better person. You want to be more grateful, like them.

I’ll never forget the speech I heard by Chinese Cardinal Ignatius Kung back in 1992. He had spent years 30 imprisoned by the Chinese government for his Roman Catholic faith, and many of those were spent in solitary confinement. Among the many things he said that deeply moved me, this I found to be the most stunning: “I am grateful to God for those years [in solitary], which were the greatest years of my priesthood. Because there I could imitate my Lord in His abandonment on the Cross and give my life for His people. That is where priesthood takes all its meaning.”

I want that.

May it be so for all of us. Amen. Amen.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving.