With Me

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Another “must share” homily from Omaha — I am trying to stretch them out into August to not overwhelm you with too much bright light at once. The priest who homilized is in his 70’s, with the heart of a young man.

The Gospel that day that he preached on was this:

While Jesus was speaking to the crowds,
his mother and his brothers appeared outside,
wishing to speak with him.
Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside,
asking to speak with you.”
But he said in reply to the one who told him,
“Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”
And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father
is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Here are his words, reconstructed from scribbled notes jotted down on a crumpled piece of paper I found on the floor.

+ + + +

Who are you? Who do you think you are? Ponder anew. Jesus tells us today: we are his brothers, sisters, mothers. The Father binds us all as one family if we do His will, which means looking to Jesus, the Son, as our model.

Growing up, my father was not there for me. Now, he was a good man, a hard working man and was always there for us. But he was never with us, with me. He was always distant, somewhere else when we was with us, and he never really spent close time with me as a boy. He was a strong and stoic figure that I feared, admired, but could not say I loved.

I grew up and matured, let go of the hurts and resentments. Forgave him for not being there, for not showing affection or concern for my little world, for not allowing me to have childhood memories playing with my dad. Jesus healed many of the shadows of anger and resentment in me and taught me to love my father and not nurse my own wounds.

As my father got older, he grew sick and I wasn’t sure how long we’d have with him. I just knew that now was the time to share with him my regrets, but without anger or hurt. Just so I could understand why. Why couldn’t he be there with us.

He listened attentively and, after a long pause, told me about his own childhood. He had never, not ever once spoken of his father to us. I knew only that his father died when he was a teenager. He told me that his own father had abused him, beat him, rejected him as his son. “Before [my father died,” he said, “he had already left me an orphan.” I asked my father why he decided to tell me this and not answer my question directly. He said, again after a long pause, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I never knew what it was like to be a son. To have a father. So I don’t know how to treat you as a son.”

It was a sacred moment.

Years later I asked myself while on a retreat, “Then how have I learned how to be a father as a priest?” It was clear at once to me as the exchange of Jesus and Phillip immediately leapt into my mind [14:8-10]:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?”

Jesus, so intimately close to the Father, had shown me the Father and invited me into His own Sonship, to experience what it means to be loved by the Father, what it means to be a beloved son. There in the Heart of Jesus I had learned how to be a father, but Jesus did it so humbly I hadn’t even noticed He was doing it. I thought, I don’t have to imagine what the invisible, seemingly distant Father is like! The Son, who became human to make divinity “closer to me than I am to myself,” bears within Him the Father [John 14:11]; and He’s the perfect Image of the Father, His Word [John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:1ff]. Looking at Jesus’ human face, into His eyes of love and compassion, is looking into a mirror of the Father’s invisible face, into His compassionate eyes. Jesus also says, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” [Matthew 11:27].

I asked Jesus again and again as I looked at the crucifix: “Show me the Father.” I heard in my heart these words describing the prodigal father: “…while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” ([Luke 15:20].

We say Jesus is God-with-us, but Jesus also opens us to the vision of the Father-with-us. Playing. Rejoicing. Working. Running with unspeakable joy toward us.

T.S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I had been on a quest to recover the love I had never had, but yearned for, not knowing how to recover it. And when I came to Jesus, who stretched His arm out to me and invited me into His family, I found myself back to by own beginning; to the moment when God, in the womb of my mother, had breathed the breath of life in me and loved me into existence. Jesus led me, and I arrived where I started, and I came to know the place for the first time. New wonder. New joy. New gratitude. New life.

And the Spirit, who had been leading my exploration all along, murmuring indiscernible groans within, finally became fully articulate and cried out in me: “Abba! Father!”

I’m home.

______________

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My homily notes

12 comments on “With Me

  1. nos. says:

    Thank you Thomas, beautiful story.the image of the father throwing the son in the air reminded me of yesterday at our home parish where my family gathered to celebrate the sacrament of baptism for my granddaughter I had my turn at holding my 1 year old grandson whom I promptly tossed into the air much like I did with my own six kids,he loved it , that is until I dropped him ,,,,,,, just joking … May all fathers know how to love their children as GOD loved HIS… P.B.W.Y. all…

    • Jennifer says:

      Ah, what’s a little bump on the head in exchange for thrilling game of toss the baby? My father-in-law used to be quite the daredevil with his own kids. He was too old to throw them by the time my kids came around but he still gets quite the twinkle in the eye as he tells the stories of how high he would through them or how he would teach his toddlers to hang by their fingertips off the top of the refrigerator and then when the would let go he would catch them before they hit the ground!

      DT: This is beautiful. My relationship with my dad is a lot like the priest’s described here and my relationship with my mom was much closer but very painful. And for a long time my strategy to remedy that situation was to get less close since that was easier than fixing the pain. And when I became a parent of course I vowed I am never going to treat my kids the way my parents treated me. And of course, that lasted about three seconds. I was so hurt for so long…as a little kid I remember the verse from one of the hymns “Though a mother forsake her child, He will not abandon you.” and oh boy, did that mean something to me. That was my anchor, even though I didn’t really know God at that time, that was my hope. But, oh i was so mad at her inside and as I grew out of teenage-hood I stopped screaming and crying but grew so cold to her and to much everything else.
      Embracing God for dear life and trusting Him that I could tolerate the comments that would normally burn inside and instead forgive her silently and respond with a gentle word instead of a barb of my own really was a huge and important step that I couldn’t have taken on my own, Then, as I grew in devotion to Mary, I was given the grace to finally feel my mom’s hurt and to really deep inside feel how much my parents, especially my mom, brought her own deep pain with her into her role as a mom. My mom endured a lot of tragedy and loss at a young age. Meanwhile she continued to try to hold her own family together (which was like trying to hold an exploding grenade together- with as much collateral damage) and live with my distant dad and all these kids with all their own issues. My poor mother, now I can see it and I think, she was and is a hero! How did she manage to get out of bed in the morning every day?
      So yeah, my point is, these unhealed hurts grow and fester down through the generations and so much of it can be pointed back not to tragedies like untimely deaths, but betrayals and other sin, especially in response to the tragedies. But I firmly believe that blessed is he whose trust is in the Lord. Clinging to the Lord and teaching these commandments to our children, showing them our Father and Mother who love them dearly and show us what it is to love, is the best gift and the best remedy to all these inherited hurts. And I trust that choosing to abide in this Love he has will affect not only my children and my children’s children but back up the family tree too. ‘Cause God’s mercy is like that.

      The verse that God blesses those he loves to the thousandth generation but punishes those who have committed iniquities to the third and fourth generations, this is what that means to me. Not so much that God is punishing the children of the sinners, but the painful consequences of the the father’s sin endure for many a year.

  2. nos says:

    Exactly “small scale” if you get on grampys bus the bumps and bruises are part of it “J ” thanks for yesterday’s blessing to my grand baby. And don’t worry they all have this Grampy covered …your mum sounds like giant P.B.W.Y. and her..

    P.S. what are you doing up so early. Pray pray pray is what.

    • Jennifer says:

      My mom amazes me. Thank you for your prayers for her. Early morning is my favourite time of the day….when I can drag myself out of bed, that is! Don’t forget that we have extra time zones up here. I think I am two hours ahead of the doctah. So, it was not as early as the time stamp would lead you to believe.

      PBWY and yours too.

  3. windhamnola says:

    Thanks for the post Dr. Neal — a beautiful story about love, forgiveness, and healing!

  4. nos. says:

    Dear Doctah, you are so funny , I’m saving all my old notebook pads and sending them to you for Christmas. There only written on one side. But at least their not crumpled up oh my thank you for the laugh you scrounge you … P.B.W.Y. Neal clan and all.

  5. LP says:

    What a beautiful reflection and quite a brave homily, compared to those I am hearing at our church.

    Tears fell like refreshing rain. I have told before of my family situation – we were expected to be perfect – behaviour, academics etc so severe mental and physical punishment ensued. I may have admitted that my parents never said they loved us. I guess we were too intimidated to ask about their parents, how they met etc and so I became terrified of my father and could not forgive him for what he did to me in my life. My relationship with my mother was distant and cold. More fool me for not trying to penetrate their walls or understand their personal situations.

    What I may not have revealed is that I had myself sterilised in my early 20s. I could not contemplate what I might do to any children I might have and selfishly wanted to live without having to make such a decision should I become pregnant. I confess to my cowardice and admire the bravery of you who have made great efforts to break the cycle of your early family life to raise children to understand their worth and beauty. I was going to train to be a children’s liturgist but have changed my mind for fear of what I might say or do to God’s little ones.

    I thank Fr Tom (and yes I do mean Father) and all of you for sharing your experiences. Your con-joined ministry with Fr Tom is such a blessing, you cannot imagine the far-reaching effects of what you are so willing to share.

    May God bless you all. LP
    PS could someone explain the PBWY acronym…

    • Jennifer says:

      My sweet sister!

      Although I haven’t figured out all of NOS (Number one sinner)’s acronyms, I can tell you PBWY = Peace be with you, AWYS= And with your spirit, and JITIY= Jesus, I trust in You.

      Thank you for sharing your story with such honesty here. This community is a special place to me too, and I love to get to know all of you! I am not sure if you know that Dr. Tom is mostly away from commenting, hopefully he will get a chance to write to you soon.

      So much I want to say to you but have little ones jealous for my attention, but I want to say
      1) Go for it, train for children’s liturgy! Please, don’t let your fear stop you. My first thought when I read what you wrote is that God wants to redeem your hurt. He wants to use you, and your sensitivity, and your broken childhood, to reach out to other children and share your faith and His love with them. God wants to heal you in the darkest places of your soul, and so many times he brings us back full-circle to the things that hurt us the most to give us a chance to have a do-over of sorts, to use what we have learned and to reveal to us what we still need to learn. I think this is your chance. And, I think that your brokenness can become your greatest gift in loving others. They don’t have to know your life story (unless you choose to share with them) but you will bring your heart and soul to them. Perhaps you can test the waters just be volunteering to be an assistant in the nursery or catechism class, then perhaps you will find that indeed you want to get more involved? Pray, pray, pray!

      2) I know you have said that your mother passed a year ago And though you write “more fool me for not trying…” well, can I just offer that it is not too late for redemption for that relationship either. Pray for your parents’ souls, ask God to help you to forgive them, and for his forgiveness for yourself, and with hope you can look forward to a heaven-set reunion one day when everything will make so much more sense.

      Cling to God, cling to Mary… she will carry you to her son. God loves you so much! In Him there is truly mercy and the fullness of redemption. PBWY, LP.

      -jen

      • LP says:

        Dear Jen and NOS

        Thank you for such kind support and great advice. With friends in Christ as you are, you give me such courage and hope.

        I ask God to bless you abundantly. LP

  6. nos. says:

    Dearest LP, what ” JEN ” said 70 ·7… big HUGS to you dearest LP. P.B.W.Y.and yours always … nos.

    • LP says:

      Dear NOS

      I humbly thank you for your insights and kindness. MGBYA – I decided to create a new acronym – May God Bless You Always. LP

  7. nos. says:

    Dearest LP. how powerful is your testimony, but not half as powerful as your witness will be, JITIY… The good doctah is truly guided by the HOLY THREE… his quotes and advice are truly inspired… I thought of you as I read the last lines of his T.S.Eliot quote. JESUS led me and I arrived where I started, and I came to know the place for the first time.New wonder .New joy. New gratitude.New LIFE… And the SPIRIT who had been leading my exploration all along murmuring indiscernable groans within , finally became fully articulate and cried out in me : ” ABBA ! FATHER!”

    ” I’m home… ”

    To a sister in CRIST this profligate man says. ” MGBYA”… and P.B.W.Y. always

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