N.O. readers: I will not be adding any new thoughts until next week (February 15ff), as I have a very busy week of travel and work ahead. But I do plan to “go public” again with my posts as we begin Lent. I was persuaded by friends of mine to resume before my original 5/15/16 date. The first “new” posts will be taken from this 30,000+ word post (!) that I have been secretly (lol) populating with various thoughts since December. Thanks for enduring my need for low-key work and for continuing to read my work. A blessed Lent to you!
I’ll leave you with a song by the Catholic band, Peter’s Keys, called Kyrie. It’s a tour de force of broken lives in need of divine mercy. My son melded the song with this image of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni.
A linguistic Lent
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. – Matthew 12:36-37
My spiritual director once advised me to attend to my use of words in Lent, to reflect at the end of each day how I used my words to either reveal or conceal God, and to pray in the morning asking God to use my words to good effect throughout the day. He cited Pythagoras’ famous saying: “Be silent, or say something better than silence,” and adjured me to observe the same. He gave me four handy scriptural texts for evaluating my speech:
Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”
James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”
Luke 12:2-3: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”
The first quote is reminds me to avoid deceptive dissembling and practice truthful sincerity. The second commands me to use my words to build others up and convey grace. The third warns about my high calling as a teacher who, because I am given such an intimate sharing in the authority of the divine Word (cf Matt. 23:8), will have to give an account for how I used that authority to speak the truth in love. The fourth is about the radically public nature of all words and deeds (cf Sirach 23:18-19), as on judgment day all I have done or whispered in dark corners will be known to all, to my glory or to my shame.
This last text from Luke has helped me understand the sacrament of Reconciliation in a new way. When I verbalize my most secret sins to another human being (who mystically re-presents Christ), I anticipate the final judgment of the world to come, when all will be known by all. Fr. Hopko, to this effect, says: “Confession is truly a sacrament of the age to come, which is why it demands total, brutal honesty. Get it all out now and expose it to the mercy of God, who will swallow up all your stinking, rotten, perverse words in the furnace of His merciful Word [Psalm 12:6!].” More and more over the years, I have become cognizant that every word I speak echoes on into eternity, and when I stand before the judgment seat of Christ, I imagine each of my words will unite as a song in His presence that is either a hymn of blessing or a dirge of cursing (cf James 3:9-10).
NT Wright says that humanity, made in the divine image, is tasked with making present to all creation God’s manner of relating to it. Both animate and inanimate creation should encounter in us God’s oikonomia, the manner in which God cares for this vast cosmic temple He has built. Human beings alone are priests, and have been gifted with the capacity to give voice to God’s Word toward creation in blessing, and to turn creation’s inarticulate voice toward God in grateful praise. I think here of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the animals and birds, and singing his Canticle of Creation.
So let’s get to it. By your words, at every moment, become the eloquence of God.
Christ: the unexplained Answer (cf 2 Corinthians 1:20)
I’ll never forget the experience I had in 1991 meeting working at a Missionary of Charity home in D.C. for homeless men and women in the latter stages of HIV/AIDS. There was a young woman who had lived on the streets for years as a prostitute, who had AIDS. I can’t remember her name. When she came in she was bitter and angry, filled with cursing and spitting on the sisters and volunteers. Eventually, though, she softened under the influence of those sisters. And eventually she expressed interest in being baptized. After she had received instruction in the faith for a few weeks, she indicated she felt ready. But one day she asked one of the sisters why God had looked on and done nothing all those years while she, as a child and young woman, suffered injustices at the hands of others. The Sister to whom she posed this agonizing question gave what I found to be an astonishingly beautiful answer. She simply said to her: “Why don’t you ask Him yourself?”, and led her over to the Chapel to speak to the Lord in the tabernacle with the crucifix above it, flanked by the words, “I thirst.” She offered the woman a brief counsel on the significance of the Blessed Sacrament and the meaning of the words, “I thirst,” and left her there alone. The woman remained in the chapel for at least 2 hours, crying loudly for stretches of time. Afterward, she went to the sister and simply indicated she was ready for baptism. The Sister said to me later that it seems the only answer this woman received from God as to “why?” was the silent eloquence of Christ dying on the cross.
I wrote later in my journal: “Yes, by the sight not of a victimizer but of a Victim among victims; the sight of an unloved Lover athirst with love for the loveless and unloved; the sight of the Defeater of injustice who conquers by the force of mercy…which is nothing other than justice impassioned by inexhaustible love. She did not hear explanations or justifications, but she saw a Solution who had suffered the same evils she did. She saw a God who ‘gets it’, whose off the hook because He’s on the hook; with us; for us…”
And if I had read N.T. Wright back then, I would have ended with this quote:
Jesus doesn’t give an explanation for the pain and sorrow of the world. He comes where the pain is most acute and takes it upon himself. Jesus doesn’t explain why there is suffering, illness, and death in the world. He brings healing and hope. He doesn’t allow the problem of evil to be the subject of a seminar. He allows evil to do its worst to him. He exhausts it, drains its power, and emerges with new life.
“May death find you alive” — Fall Out Boy
When I first heard those words in their song, Uma Thurmin, I wondered what they meant. Regardless of what they meant, it made me think about the life-death paradoxes in the Gospels. Luke 17:33 for example: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” I thought about how surrendering to death can bring life, and recalled a story precious to my wife and me. Back in 2002, a dear friend of ours was dying. He was terrified of death, mostly because all the sins of his past had come back to haunt him with a terrible vengeance. Nothing could console him, even Confession.
One day my wife took our children to visit him in hospice. When he saw them, be began to cry softly. Our son Nicholas, who was 5 at the time, told him: “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, everything’s gonna be okay. You’ll get to see God! And your Mommy too!” His words made the man sob uncontrollably, and say: “No! No! I won’t!” Shortly after they left the room, his caretaker, who later called me to relate this story, said he was again gripped with fear. But she said to him: “Pat, don’t you see that God sent you that boy to speak to you the words He will speak to you when you see His face? God will say, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, everything will be okay.'” She told me that right then he let go of his terrified grip on fear, took a deep breath, sighed and relaxed. As she walked out of the room she said he flat-lined peacefully into eternity. Death found him alive.
Here’s a quote written by Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, (1881-1955), who was a French Jesuit theologian and scientist renowned for his pioneering field work in paleontology. It’s taken from a long prayer Fr. Chardin wrote while working in a remote part of China. He entitled it, “Hymn of the Universe.” On this particular day he wrote it, Chardin did not have what he needed to celebrate Mass. Instead– thinking of St. Maximus the Confessor’s saying that “man as God’s image alone of all creatures was constituted priest of nature” — he offered himself and the whole material universe to God. Much as the Eastern liturgical text has it: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” The hymn’s rich sentiments have inspired my own ability to enter more profoundly into the Eucharistic offering at Mass and discern the weight of the offering I am called to bear up (Romans 8:19!), especially when the celebrant says: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the Father almighty.” What is my sacrifice? Everything I have bound myself to and to which I am myself bound! As my spiritual director once said to me (with what beauty!): “If Bethlehem’s star taught us anything, it’s that God has so arranged things that even the most distant stars await your ‘yes’ in Christ.” Daniel 3:57-88! Okay, Fr. Chardin:
Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time,
boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations:
you who by overflowing and dissolving
our narrow standards or measurement
reveal to us the dimensions of God.
Without you, without your onslaughts,
without your uprootings of us,
we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile,
ignorant both of ourselves and of God.
You who batter us and then dress our wounds,
you who resist us and yield to us,
you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate,
the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ:
it is you, matter, that I bless.
I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim:
not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you,
debased, disfigured – a mass of brute forces and base appetites –
but as you reveal yourself to me today,
in your totality and your true nature.
I acclaim you as the divine milieu,
charged with creative power,
as the ocean stirred by the Spirit,
as the clay molded and infused
with life by the incarnate Word. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Father of the orphan, defender of the widow,
such is God in his holy place.
God gives the lonely a home to live in;
he leads the prisoners forth into freedom. — Psalm 68:6-7
When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity, I worked alongside a man named Peter who was an artist consumed by a passion for those who lived on the social margins. We would talk for hours late at night about our experiences during the day. I recall one conversation I noted in my journal that was especially remarkable. Peter said something like this, read through my later ruminating prayer:
Tom, there are times when I feel reality is so thin, almost translucent, that I could almost reach my hand out and pass into the next world. You know? But that happens more than anytime before in my life here, among all of these people who’ve been ignored by most, despised by some, pitied by a few … I’ve concluded that it’s like this because these Sisters [Missionaries of Charity] have made of this hospice an antechamber to Paradise, and these residents who come here see it too; even though they wouldn’t say it that way, obviosuly. They know there’s something more home about this place than anywhere they’ve been before. They say it all the time, don’t they? “This place is the best home I’ve ever had.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why reality seems so thin here: wherever there’s “home,” there’s heaven, where God’s not hidden anymore, right around the corner, in the next room. But isn’t it just like God to make this kind of place more home than anywhere else? Where homeless people gathered, trusting Christians to house them, God is at pains to get about homebuilding. Almost stretching the veil to the ripping point because He’s anxious to get this home built. That’s a totally excellent way to think about the church: the leading edge of God’s anxiety, the place on earth where God frenetically builds homes for the homeless. Jesus said He had to go so He could get to work on building a home (John 14:2-3), but He can’t wait until we get there. He wants to work on it now, with us, so maybe the church is really just God’s elaborate ‘habitat for humanity’ where He sets about the work of home-making for the orphans and widows and strangers that are really, in the end, wandering around looking for a home where they can feel the way the world was supposed to be in the beginning. Maybe that’s why I feel things are so ‘thin’ here, more than anywhere, because the most homeless places are exactly the places where God is freaking out to get His home built, and Christians are supposed to be the most convincing sign that God in heaven wants to bring all this crap to an end and make the world His home and ours (Rev. 21:3!). It’s all so upside-down of God, His whole salvation strategy — like frustrated and angry children having a temper tantrum, we flipped our world over in Eden…now God’s patiently flipping it right-side up again…
This thought of Christ as the divine-upturner made me think of David Bentley Hart’s point in Christ and Nothing:
It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars.
“This is why you’re here, to help one another.” — City worker
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta
“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
“What we do in life echoes in eternity.” — Maximus Decimus Meridius
They say in heaven, love comes first.
We’ll make heaven a place on earth.
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth. — Belinda Carlisle
I am preparing my talks for a mini-retreat I am giving soon on the vocation of the laity to “consecrate the world to God.” As ever, it’s rocking my world. As any nealobstat reader knows, within that retreat I will talk about the intimate link between this life and the next, between this creation and the new creation, and how getting that inter-relationship “right” is the deepest secret of a proper “mysticism of laity,” who are called to live lives not sequestered in sacristies and shrines, but lives lived out fully immersed in all things secular, temporal, worldly. To that end, I came across this fantastic quote from N.T. Wright’s fascinating book, Surprised by Hope. I’ll share it here for your meditation, followed by the quote from Vatican II that resonates beautifully with Wright’s insight:
Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about … The point of the resurrection is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
“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: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.” On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.” (Gaudium et Spes #39)
A friend wrote me and asked me to respond to a question about mercy being considered a “cheap” way out of sin, as being forgiven seems just too quick and easy. Here was my email back:
Mercy, like grace (xáris), is an undeserved favor. As you say, creation itself is an act of pure mercy: a pure, gratuitous gift of existence given by I AM. And mercy, which is an aspect of love, always places that undeserved favor in service to the being and well-being of the other. Love means willing the good of another, and mercy (which is love encountering evil and overcoming it) means willing the good of one crippled by evil (whether self-inflicted or other-inflicted).
Mercy is always free, but, once accepted, is never cheap since one who receives it accepts with it the inner dynamism and telos [goal] of mercy: to radically eradicate evil, radically here meaning that which is related to the radix, “root,” since mercy uproots evil. Mercy is always costly when it is permitted to be what it is, and achieve its end, since the eradication of evil demands total conversion from evil…which is always costly to the sinner. St John of the Cross describes the excruciating process of purgation that God puts us through as He gives us His mercy in order to eradicate sin and its distorting effects within us and make us capable of receiving and giving divine selfless love.
And, as Jesus reveals fully on the cross, mercy is also always costly to the giver of mercy. God creates a world out of nothing and gives it, in man, a freedom to receive the gift offered…or not. That was a costly risk God took and on the cross He owned the risk and the cost…for the good of the other, i.e. humanity. Chesterton said: “Unless we affirm that God takes genuine risks, we will not be able to acknowledge that the world is a war zone while also holding that this war is not God’s will.”
In regard to sin mercy is remissive not permissive (meaning: remission of sins not permission to sin). It pardons evils in order to remove them, get them out of the way (Psalm 51:1’s māhāh, “wipe away” sins), so that the communion of love, broken by sin, may be restored and estranged parties might be reconciled. Mercy never overlooks evil, but rather mercy heals, overcomes evil by restoring one harmed by evil to their originally God-intended goodness. Or to use an image dear to St. Gregory Naz, sin covers the divine image over with muck and filth and mercy washes it clean so that it might shine in us again with all its brilliance in the life of virtue.
Lastly, there is another cost to mercy: one who receives it must also in turn give it (think for example of Matthew 18:21-35). In the Kingdom, you can’t give what you don’t have, but you also can’t have what you don’t give. St. Gregory again says, mercy shows itself having restored God’s image in us when we cheerfully practice almsgiving to the ungrateful, undeserving poor or joyfully do good to our nasty neighbor. Then we look just like God who showers His gifts on the undeserving (Matthew 5:45 makes this point in the midst of the hardest words of the Sermon on the Mount). Cool side fact: “Almsgiving” comes from the Latin alemosyna, which comes from the Greek eleemosyne, which stems from the Greek root noun, eleos, which we translate in Scripture as mercy. Kyrie eleison. So almsgiving is mercy-giving, returning to God by way of the poor and undeserving and ungrateful the same mercy we received (Matthew 5:7; 10:8).
Then there’s forgiving mercy. The Our Father contains that stunning conditional clause that should make the “forgiven” tremble, tremble, tremble: “Forgive us our trespasses hōs kai [also as] we forgive those who trespass against us.” Just in case you missed that shocking development in Jewish forms of prayer (where else can you find this, except by intimation..like in Jonah?), Jesus ends the Our Father with these words:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Nothing cheap there. And there are many other examples of this in New Testament.
Free, yes, cheap, never. At least not if it’s the Full Gospel you are talking about.
Does that help?
This past weekend at Family Gras, a family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration in Metairie, the Monkees gave a free concert — at least Micky and Peter did (Davy died and Mike was not there). The Neals totally enjoyed it (including my 89 year old mom), and though their voices gave evidence of the passage of time, it was super nostalgic and fun. Here’s a song I caught on my phone, if you feel so disposed to listen:
“Laity, be who you are” –St John Paul II
“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” — Lumen Gentium #31
We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity—not all of them but many—ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path. — Pope Francis
“Ecclesial and pastoral sensibility is concretized also in reinforcing the indispensable role of the laity willing to assume the responsibilities that correspond to it. In reality, the laity that has authentic Christian formation should not be in need of a Bishop-pilot, or of the Monsignor–pilot or of clerical input to assume their own responsibilities at all levels, from the political to the social, from the economic to the legislative! Instead, they are all in need of the Bishop Pastor!” — Pope Francis
The Church needs a change in mindset, particularly concerning laypeople. They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy, but truly recognized as “co-responsible” for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity. — Pope Benedict XVI
“Laypeople are not second-class disciples in this task. This moment in history cries out for mature, intelligent, zealous and faithful lay leaders in an urgent way. Priests and bishops cannot do the work of laypeople. That’s not what Christ called us to do. It’s not what the Church formed us to do. Our role as clergy in bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ, flows through you lay men and women who hear the Word of God; who love the Church for the truth she teaches; and then bring that Catholic witness into society to change it and sanctify it in Christ’s name. Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matter eternally. Laypeople, not clergy, have the task of evangelizing the secular world, and only you can do it as God intended. So never be embarrassed by your baptism. Never be afraid of the consequences of your faith. Take pride in your Catholic identity for the blessing and mandate it is. Act on it. Share it with others.” — Pope Francis
The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap, at the crossroads where there were three languages written upon the Cross. Yes, they were Hebrew, Latin and Greek, but they could just as well have been English, Bantu or African. It would make no difference. He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the midst of the world and make Christ known. — Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all down on your head.” — Flannery O’Connor
An acceptable offering
I am no longer concerned with good and evil. What concerns me is whether my offering will be acceptable. – Robert Frost
I remember back in the 1990’s I heard a phenomenal homily at a legislative Mass in Tallahassee, Florida. The homilist recounted the last weeks of St. Thomas More’s life and spoke of the many ways he epitomized the meaning of fidelity to the oath of public office. He recounted a fascinating conversation that took place between Thomas More and his daughter, Meg, while he was in prison. As I recall, she was trying to convince her father to dissemble and feign signing the Oath of Supremacy in order to save his life. But More responded: “Meg, when a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” The preacher added: “Thomas saw his trial, sentencing and execution as a privileged opportunity to publically ratify not simply his oath of office but the oath of his baptism. Only thus could he make of his life a worthy offering to God.” At the end of the homily, he described with great feeling the Saint’s final moments of life. Just before More was beheaded, he forgave his executioner and said: “Be not afraid of your office; you send me to God.” Archbishop Cranmer, who was standing by to watch, remarked in a cynical tone, “You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?” St. Thomas replied: “He will not refuse one who is so blithe [cheerful] to go to him.”
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. – Wisdom 3:5-6
Blessed are you persecuted
The tragic persecution of Christians throughout the world, and especially in the middle east, has become well known in recent years. The word “persecution” in the Latin roots of the English word (persecutionem) means “being hunted down,” while the Greek word rendered as “persecuted” in English (e.g. Matt. 5:11 diōxōsin) means “being put to flight.” Persecution can refer to the harassment, exclusion, exiling, or violent assault on a person or group of people because of their race, ethnicity, creed, political persuasion, etc.
Built on the catastrophic rejection of Christ by both Jews and Gentiles, Christianity has had persecution written deeply into the structures of its religious imagination. In fact, the New Testament makes persecution almost the natural state of affairs for Christians (cf Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; Acts 14:22). But there is something utterly unique and astonishing about the Christian vantage on the proper response to persecution that’s captured with bold precision in Luke 6:27-28: “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Here Jesus offers not only a disorienting description of a disciple’s right-response to persecution, but a magnificent hermeneutic (interpretation) of the manner in which He Himself will face His own impending death.
Moreover, in the Christian theological tradition, Jesus’ Passion not only offers a model for imitation but, in a most real sense, embodies and absorbs the “being hunted down” of every innocent victim of violence and injustice in human history (cf Isaiah 53:4; Luke 10:16). In fact, we could say that the Holy Eucharist is the sacramentalizing of Jesus’ posture toward rejection and hatred (i.e. broken Body and spilled Blood “for you and for many”) which, when we risk ingesting it, empowers and demands of us a like response.
I say all this to preface two remarkable quotes I came across this summer as I was preparing a talk on Christian hope. The first was in a homily that made reference to the extraordinary witness of faith and forgiveness given by the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS in 2015. The priest said: “If we want to invoke the word persecution as Christians, we have to know that the 8th beatitude kicks in: ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.’ The proper Christian witness in the face of persecution is joy. Why is this a cause for joy? First of all, let me quote St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said while on his way to his own execution [Romans 5], ‘by their injustices I am becoming a better disciple.’ He understood that only in such hostile surroundings, flanked by rejection and ridicule for one’s hope in Christ, does the love of Christ in us have opportunity to become most truly itself.”
The second quote is from Pope Benedict’s encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi. It’s a bit lengthy, but I believe worth every inch of space it takes:
We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever (Ps 136). The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me … How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see emperors, mandarins, and their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? (cf. Ps 80:1). Behold, the pagans have trodden your Cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love. O Lord, show your power, save me, sustain me, that in my infirmity your power may be shown and may be glorified before the nations … Beloved brothers, as you hear all these things may you give endless thanks in joy to God, from whom every good proceeds; bless the Lord with me, for his mercy is for ever … I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart” … Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.
Love making goodness
When a man’s love is caused from the goodness of the one he loves, then that man who loves does so out of justice, inasmuch as it is just that he love such a person. When, however, love causes the goodness in the beloved, then it is a love springing from mercy. The love with which God loves us produces goodness in us; hence mercy is… the root of divine love… (Thomas Aquinas, In Eph. 2:2)
I have been, because of the Jubilee, thinking a lot about mercy these days. A colleague sent me this quote today in honor of Aquinas’ feast day. It thrilled me! I love Aquinas’ precision and clarity.
Aquinas’ formulation of mercy made me think of a story I have long cherished and often shared. It was told to me by a Russian priest 30 years ago, who was involved in prison ministry in the 1980’s in New England. He had a particular soft spot in his heart for the most hardened criminals, as he himself early in life had been involved in drug-related crimes before coming to faith. This priest, as a seminarian put it to me this morning, was able to minister not only “to” the suffering, but “out of” his own suffering.
He told me about this one prisoner who was in solitary confinement because he was so dangerous. He had committed heinous crimes, and showed absolutely no remorse. One day this priest was able to gain access to this man’s cell. When the priest entered the cell, the man yelled: “Go away, goddamn priest! Leave me to rot in hell.” Almost every day for the next year, the priest would come to this man’s cell and look through the small slot-window. He would say nothing, just look, and the inmate would just look back. Just about a year to the day, the priest came and looked in as he had every other day. But this time the man stood and walked over to window and said: “I just wanted to see if you were serious. Come in.”
The inmate took instruction, was baptized and tonsured (became a monk-hermit).
The long-suffering love of this priest, which was the love of Christ in him (cf 2 Cor. 5:14), caused goodness to bloom in the hard heart of this man. That is mercy, and its most exquisite fruit, goodness.
The Fearless Cross
The well-known poem of St. Teresa, Nada te turbe, “Let nothing disturb you,” is a masterpiece of literature in its simplicity, density, symmetry and rhythm.
Nada te turbe, nada te espante todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda, la paciencia todo lo alcanza,
quien a Dios tiene nada le falta sólo Dios basta.
Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing frighten you;
all things pass,
God does not change;
patience attains all;
one who has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
We even have an original autograph of the text written in Teresa’s own handwriting in the margin of her breviary:
This brief text is an existentially rich and poetic meditation on faith and hope. The formal object of faith and hope is God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who alone is the origin and end of all things (Revelation 1:8; 22:13) and who alone is the immovable standard by which all change is judged. One who trusts this God amid life’s chaos, violence and storms discovers a counter-intuitively provident God who has revealed Himself absolutely in a shockingly unlikely place: the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus. This God shows Himself present and active above all in those darkest realms seemingly farthest from the reach of His omnipotent power. On the Cross, God reveals His omnipotence in impotence, His wisdom in madness, His love in hatred, His order in chaos, His life in death. Sinking your anchor into the crucified God binds your soul to the Cross, extolled in this ancient Carthusian motto:
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis,
The cross is steady while the world is turning.
Nada te turbe is not a prayer (since it is not addressed to God), but is a theological meditation that provides the basis for praying with trust in the midst of the “terrors of the night” (Psalm 91:5). We trust not because we naively and wishfully think away negative realities with positive thoughts, but because the God in whom we trust has fully and really entered that blackest night and filled it with the unchanging light of His undying love. There in the dark we meet Him, with us, patiently leading us into the new creation where the night has passed away, the dawn has risen and the Light of Light shines for all ages.
Colleen Nixon sang a gorgeous rendition of this text, and appended to it a prayer that asks God to “consume us” by His grace, even as we consume His sacrificial gift in the Eucharistic banquet. It’s a fitting coda to St Teresa’s prayer, as we are invited not to flee reality into fantasy, but to enter into the heart of God’s confrontation with the darkness in the slain Lamb. Are you ready to be thus consumed?
Those of you who read my blog with any consistency know that I share my daughters’ affection for the group, Twenty One Pilots. I like their sound, energy and vibe, but even more I like their clean and meaningful lyrics. I was thrilled to see on Word on Fire philosophy professor Father Damian Ference make these comments about them:
What I am saying is that Twenty One Pilots has offered a masterful incarnation of the culture of encounter. They meet their audience where they are, as they are, and they let them know that they “get them.” Once their audience trusts them, then they can slowly challenge them to consider a new way of seeing, a new way of living, and a new way of being. Is it evangelization? Maybe not exactly, but it is encounter, which is a prerequisite for authentic evangelization. They’ve accomplished the important work of preparing the soil for seeds to be sown, which isn’t easy. And, if by the end of the night, Twenty One Pilots can get some young people to say “Hello” to God for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, well, that’s better than most.
Among their songs, I have four I really love and have nearly memorized. Among these is Car Radio, which is about (involuntarily) abandoning the culture of distraction and being confronted by stark silence. I have given retreats on the value of silence and have talked about silence far more than anyone should, and found over the years that people have benefited more from those retreats than any other I have given. I will share here a quote from Henri Nouwen that I’ve used to open those retreats, and then share the 21P music video with lyrics beneath. The music video, in true 21P form, is crazily off-beat! It’s a wild visual narrative of, so to speak, stripping and shaving off of those external “noises” that distract us from revealing our intense inner struggles or keep us from facing head-on life’s most exalted and troubling questions.
Okay, here’s Nouwen:
As soon as we are alone in silence, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.
I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today
I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence
Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel
I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence
I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound
There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win and fear will lose
It is faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think
I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit
I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence
I had a very simple insight for today’s Feast that came to me this morning as I reflected on the recounting of Saul’s conversion in the Acts of the Apostles.
How marvelous that Jesus chose an enemy to proclaim the Gospel of mercy to the nations (cf 1 Tim. 1:16), to serve as the apostle whose mission was to mediate Jesus’ tearing down the wall of hostility that stood between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:14), and to author much of the New Testament. Paul’s mind-altering encounter with the Risen Jesus established in him the “enemy loving” mind of Christ (cf Phil. 2:5-11), radically embodied on the Cross (cf Gal 3:13) and spoken from the Cross (cf Luke 23:24). This mind-blowing mindset led Paul to conceive the most inconceivable intention found anywhere in Scripture — spoken in regard to his fellow Jews who, as once himself, rejected Jesus and all His followers:
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. – Romans 9:3
May Christ make me always gratefully aware that I also am equally an enemy-made-friend by His mercy (cf Rom. 5:10). O Lord, fill me with the courage to live daily by that same mercy toward others, to abide in that same mercy within which I live and move and have my being.
But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28
Give your all to me
I’ll give my all to you
I remember the day when I first heard love defined. It was in my moral theology class, and the professor said very matter-of-factly: “Of course, for Aquinas to love means to consistently will and choose the good of the other. To love neighbor as self means seeing their sharing in the good as constitutive of your own sharing in the good. To love God, whose good we cannot will strictly speaking — as He is purely actualized good itself — is to love what God loves, which, of course, is the neighbor’s good. So we come full circle.” I was ecstatic. It suddenly made sense of the interrelationship between the “two loves” and helped me see love’s link to the moral law, which specifies both what “the good” is and how one must choose in relation to the good in a manner that brings God-designed fulfillment. But my professor went even further and added, “The Second Vatican Council, under the influence of Karol Wojtyła, further enriched this definition of love by linking the willing of another’s good to an additional and necessary gift that must accompany that willing.: the gift of self.” Then he quoted Gaudium et Spes #24 to illustrate his point:
For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance.
Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
So, he said, to will and choose another’s good in love requires that, among the various goods we desire for them (like health, happiness, truth, moral rectitude, salvation), we also desire to give them our very selves (he quoted 1 Thess. 2:8). That’s the essential meaning of communion and of covenant. This is why, he said, marriage is understood as the primordial image of neighbor-love in extremis, as it is the perfection of both willing another’s good and of the total self gift. Hence, when marriage is lived well it becomes a source and witness in the social order of what love is meant to look like.
Okay, so last weekend a friend came to visit us for a few days and she showed us this 9 minute movie. I was stunned and speechless at the end, as it epitomized in such a moving way the heart of what Aquinas and the Council convey with such abstract precision. If you have the time, watch:
Re-post from 2015.
In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day. –General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373
In an annual recognition of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, our U.S. Bishops have made January 22 to be a penitential “Ash Wednesday” of sorts in which we are required as Catholics to wrap our prayer in penance as we beg for God’s mercy to pardon the slayers of the pre-born, to awaken the consciences of all to the inviolable dignity given by God to each human being at the moment of conception, to aid us in building a culture of life that obviates the temptation to abort and, as the quote above says, to restore legal protection that guarantees the pre-born’s right to life.
Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection. And every elderly person…even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the ‘culture of waste’ suggests! — Pope Francis
We pray for the hastening of the day when a prominent civil rights activist will write in an article marking the anniversary of this court decision,
As we recall that there once was a time when we, under the pretext of civil liberties and human rights, defended the chemical burning, dismembering, evacuating and poisoning of pre-born human beings, let us reaffirm this day our unrelenting commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the defenseless. Let us reassert our resolve to labor and give birth to a world wherein every child conceived is welcomed by their mother, their father and by a human family united by the bonds of love, compassion and justice. May we never again fail to see in each pre-born human life a living witness to the fragile web of our interdependence and the primordial sign that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper…
Two vantages, one reality
I will leave you with two quotes — one that reflects on the need for truth and the second on the need for compassion. The first quote is by a pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf, written in the October 16,1995 edition of The New Republic, in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-choice Rhetoric.” The second quote is by Pope St. John Paul II, and is taken from his March 25, 1995 Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae #99.
So what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism. –– Naomi R. Wolf
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life. — Pope St. John Paul II
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Rom. 5:8
I was speaking a little while ago with a woman whose husband abandoned her without warning and left her with grave health issues and in a state of financial hardship. She asked me to share with seminarians several of her insights into marriage and love. Among many things, she shared with me an insight into love that humbled me to the dust. Realize that my rendering of her words here betrays their original beauty, as it contains none of the tears and agony and passion that she conveyed to me as she spoke. But here is the essence of what I heard:
Tom, I know now that you cannot know what it means to love as Jesus commanded us to until you have to keep on loving someone who not only does not love you, but who has done you harm and had spitefully rejected your offer of love. These last two years have been like holding my heart in my hand and having him slap it down, laugh at it and spit on it. I have discovered in these last two years an insight into Jesus’ love for enemies, for those who hated and rejected Him. This kind of love includes an inner pain that is beyond anything I have ever suffered or imagined I could suffer. Sometimes I feel I am dying. But even though I believe I was terribly wronged by my husband and was more the victim, I’m not sinless or totally innocent in the failure of our marriage. But Jesus was completely innocent, and the rejection of a pure and innocent love is a pain you can’t understand unless you have experienced it yourself. To imagine the pain of God at our rejection never moved me before now. Now it does. And I have found at this time in my life that my calling, my mission is to love my husband faithfully without his knowing it, without his caring that I do, without his reciprocating and with his explicit rejection of it. To love him by being faithful to our sacrament until death, to pray for his well-being, to not allow his failures to kill my ability to love and to hope we can be reconciled in heaven.
How much this precious gem of insight is reminiscent of St. Catherine of Siena’s recounting of the words of God the Father to her in her Dialogue:
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.
Abba! Father! (Gal. 4:6)
As I watched a father the other day playing with his toddler-aged son, I was mesmerized. Every time the son would bring him some small trinket, the father would gawk, ooh and ah with an over-exaggerated excitement. Each time, the boy would grow more frantically enthusiastic and bring more and more things in his hands to his dad. Again, the father would explode with joy and the child would giggle with abandon. This cycle repeated maybe a dozen times before they wrapped up, packed up and headed out. I sat for a while after they had gone and I streamed with tears thinking about my own childhood, about my own children and about God. I thought about the ways in which that scene opened for me a fresh window into my own life and into the life of God; and into where I “fit” in that life.
Then I recalled a quote by St. Gregory Nazianzen that, when I first came across it in an anthology in grad school, really smacked my sensibilities awake. It evoked in me a new perspective on prayer and opened for me a new vantage on why Jesus began the prayer He taught us with the word “Father.” Once you begin with that word, rightly understood in the light of the Cross (where we learn most completely what God is like), then everything else sought in that prayer is transformed by being caught up in the beautiful mystery of God’s fatherhood. A beauty I re-encountered the other day as I watched that simple exchange.
And so Gregory:
God accepts our desires as though they were a great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love him. He accepts our petitions for benefits as though we were doing him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving. So let us not be apathetic in our asking, nor set too narrow bounds to our requests.
Confessing others’ sins
Detraction is, without objectively valid reason, disclosing another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them. — Catechism #2477
I was listening to Catholic radio a while ago and a woman was being interviewed who was a fallen away Catholic “revert.” She was recounting the story of her several failed marriages and of her eventual return to the practice of the faith. Part of her story was talking about all the people in her life who failed her, including family members, clergy and the men she married, with various and sordid details about their messed up lives. Not long before that I was reading a popular autobiography by a Catholic man who told innumerable stories about (mostly living) family members’ misdeeds, and their sometimes-funny, sometimes tragic behavior.
For years I have listened to innumerable people of faith — as part of their teaching, preaching or autobiographical memoirs — say awful, embarrasing things about other identifiable people, recounting in graphic detail the hurtful, immoral, abusive, stupid, reckless words and deeds of parents, siblings, spouses, coworkers, clergy, friends, and so on. While it can make for riveting and compelling storytelling about sin and redemption, it gives no consideration to the potential damage such revelations can effect by disclosing detailed information about identifiable others “without an objectively valid reason.” Discerning that “reason” is an ethical art, which I myself struggle with in my work of teaching, but it needs to become more a part of our Catholic consciouness.
We live in a pathologically voyeuristic culture that gives little to no attention to the moral question of whether or not damaging information about other people’s “faults and failings” should be revealed in public, regardless of how noble the “end” is that is used to justify the means. The shorthand for justifying reasons for revealing another’s faults is whether or not it is required by justice or charity. The late Fr. John Hardon offers some useful criteria for judging if revealing another’s faults, whether those people be living or dead, is warranted:
The essence of detraction is the unwarranted disclosure of a hidden failing, which implies that there are occasions when the disclosure can and even should be made. When the revelation of another person’s fault is necessary or very useful, as in defense of self or of others, no injustice is done in revealing it. This would be the case when the failing or defect is made known to parents, or superiors, or for the purpose of seeking counsel or help, or to prevent harm to others. It is also not detraction to make known what has become juridically notorious, since the culprit has lost his right to esteem in the matter. It is conducive to public security that criminals should be known for what they are. However, since one’s reputation may reflect upon a group like an organization or class of people, criminal acts of a single member of that group should not be widely disclosed so as not to jeopardize the reputation of all the persons with whom this one individual is commonly identified. Indiscriminate disclosure of this kind is the seedbed of class prejudice.
Living in the light
When I began going to spiritual direction in the 1980’s, the Trappist monk I began with wrote me a letter, and in it he said this about the need I have to seek direction:
You must be very careful to avoid isolation in the spiritual life. There’s a strong temptation to keep secrets about yourself, mostly because you want to project a good image of what you think you are like or wish you were like. But that’s no help at all as God always deals with reality never fantasy. Hiding like Adam and Eve is the natural reaction of sinners to the light. Self-delusion and rationalization are two of the greatest strengths we have as human beings. We need to live in the light consistently. John 3:19-21 is an excellent diagnosis of the psychology of isolation. Read it prayerfully now and again and ask the Spirit to reveal any places you might be hiding in. It’s important to always have a spiritual director or regular Confessor, or at least have a trusted, honest, close and wise friend with whom you can share everything. Be sure they are trustworthy and that they are honest enough to correct you when they see it, and that you are open to their honesty. Pray that God gives you someone like that and if you can keep one for a long time, the better … Someone has to keep you from being overly lax or overly harsh with yourself. The Devil uses both of these: sometimes influencing us to be careless about important matters, but other times inciting us to be scrupulous or obsessive and self punishing over various matters. Always his goal is to steal away our joy and peace because he knows we are easy prey when we lose our center …
After that time in my life, I began to collect from my reading insights in this vein and return to them now and again to evaluate how well I am adhering to his sage counsel. Here are a few quotes I treasure:
I know of no falling away of a monk which did not come from his reliance on his own judgments. Nothing is more pitiful, nothing more disastrous than to be one’s own spiritual guide. — St. Dorotheos of Gaza
It is better to be called a disciple of a disciple rather than to live by your own devices and gather the worthless fruits of your own will. — St. Symeon the New Theologian
And when at times their spiritual directors, their confessors, or their superiors disapprove their spirit and method of procedure, they feel that these directors do not understand, or perhaps that this failure to approve derives from a lack of holiness, since they want these directors to regard their conduct with esteem and praise. So they quickly search for some other spiritual advisor more to their liking, someone who will congratulate them and be impressed by their deeds. — St. John of the Cross
When the enemy of human nature [the Devil] brings his wiles and persuasions to the just soul, he wants and desires that they be received and kept in secret; but when one reveals them to his good Confessor or to another spiritual person that knows his deceits and evil ends, it is very grievous to him, because he knows, from his manifest deceits being discovered, that he will not be able to succeed with his wickedness begun. — St. Ignatius of Loyola
Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly. Normally, that would be one’s pastor, or one’s Spiritual Father or Mother, one’s elder. But every human being, every Christian, must have someone who knows everything about them. And that we regularly report to them about what is going on in our life. If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power. — Fr. Tom Hopko
I am a great fan of Denys Turner, who teaches at Yale. He gave me invaluable feedback on my dissertation, and helped me to see the ways that St. John of the Cross utilized the apophatic tradition to critique both popular piety and the charismatic renewal that swept the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century. The “apophatic tradition,” from the Greek word apophasis, meaning “un-saying,” is a philosophical-theological method that affirms we can know more about what God is not than what God is. Apophatic thinkers like to use paradoxical metaphors (God is a “dazzling darkness” or “silent speech”) and superlatives (above/supra-, beyond/trans-), and they oscillate between linguistic reserve and linguistic excess to facilitate the mind’s openness to God’s limitlessness.
Turner is a very careful thinker and has in the last 20 years done interesting work on the dialogue between atheism and Christianity, especially in his 2004 book, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God. Like Fr. Frederick Copleston, Fr. Henri de Lubac or David Bentley Hart, Turner’s a great example of how a Christian thinker can find in atheist critiques of Christian belief an important path to deeper and more honest reflection.
I am excited to say he is coming to our seminary to give a lecture on Aquinas’ apophaticism the end of this month! Here’s a 14 minute clip of his dialogue with British atheist, Jonathan Miller. If I may encourage you, persevere to the end:
A pruned rambling muse
A friend asked me recently, “What is most important to you as a theologian?” While there are innumerable ways I could have come at that question, my spontaneous response was: “Wonder!”
For me, in my package of ideals, my theologizing is defined by the capacity to sustain a sense of amazement, surprise, marvel, openness to unexpected answers that might set the mind off-balance. It’s defined by an astonished gratitude over the sheer gratuitousness of existence itself — why something rather than nothing? It’s also defined by a deep-seated humility that confesses with ever more sincere conviction that one never, in a final sense, “arrives” at the end of knowledge.
I beg God daily to sustain in me the desire and capacity to ceaselessly grow in knowledge and be affected, shaped, molded, reformed by what I discover of truth’s appearing in each new moment. Wonder teaches me each day that being grounded on the firm rock of truth is not the same as ossifying, just as certitude is not the same as hubris. Certitude raises a chalice to be filled, while hubris builds a fortress to be safe.
To be a responsible theologian means being open to learning from anything and anyone, without prejudice. It means to listen very closely, carefully, openly, with discernment. Every day, then, and every moment of every day becomes a new and joyful feast of the epiphany. Especially when your life is spent running about the playground of Divine Revelation, where the object (telos) of one’s quest is always beyond the limit and horizon of finite understanding. Maintaining a posture of sustained and lifelong wonder — being stuck in a perpetual state of wow — is supremely defining for me. In fact, I’d say the gift of faith that abides in the intellect necessitates restless wonder’s serial shock if it is to ascend nearer the divine Mountain whose zenith knows no peak. It’s no doubt why the liturgy always ends every prayer with those radically open-ended words, in saecula saeculorum, “unto the ages of ages.” Nyssa’s epektasis is exactly this.
This wondrous state of the theological mind, forever bubbling up from within the open Heart of the God-Man, gushes out into all other parts of life, staying the tide of bitter cynicism that can so easily overtake the one who becomes increasingly aware over the years of just how terribly awful humanity can be. The theologian, I mean, comes to share in the childlike mind of the One whose wonder perdured on the cross and even into the bowels of Hell where He could not help but preach the Gospel of hope to death’s prisoners (cf 1 Pet. 3:19).
The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that being, qua being, is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is ever-flowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences… — Joseph Pieper
“It takes lot of butterflies to make a world full of flowers”
― Trina Paulus
I saw this (photo below) yesterday morning in a public lot near our home. January 13. I could have kept company with them for hours, with a simple gaze, remaining just to receive their selfless gift of beauty, as the butterflies are away right now. But I had to get to work. Our glimpses of beauty are fleeting in this life. I hope to find them again in the new creation, where I will be free to waste time with them along with the butterflies.
It is the Holy Spirit who makes us find joy in each flower, the exquisite scent, the delicate color, the beauty of the Most High in the tiniest of things. Glory and honor to the Spirit, the Giver of Life, who covers the fields with their carpet of flowers, crowns the harvest with gold, and gives to us the joy of gazing at it with our eyes. O be joyful and sing to Him: Alleluia! — Akathist Glory to God for All Things
Here’s a fragment of a post from last January that popped into my memory, so what the heck:
I love this Latin quote from St. Benedict of Nursia:
Age quod agis, “do what you are doing.”
Very much like this Zen koan on mindfulness:
When you eat, eat; when you walk, walk.
A theology professor acquaintance of mine, who is also a faithful Catholic man. shared a comment his wife’s best friend made to her about him: “Boy your husband is away from home a lot for work.” He said that she added: “Yes, and even when he’s home, he’s away.” My acquaintance said that she shared this exchange with him, and it really hit him hard. He said to me (and was happy to allow me to share the insight):
She said she believes I love my work and my family, but needed me to be present to my family more and set aside my work more often. I knew she was absolutely right but I was pissed. It stung me to the heart. I knew I found my work and my study much easier to get lost in, and much easier to find God in. I used the “supporting my family” line with her to justify my long work days and frequent trips, and my mental preoccupation with work at home. But I knew deep down I was in some way avoiding the challenges of family life — from the tedium, the minutiae, the conflict, the cold pricklies, my own inadequacies as a father. When she told me that story I was upset and defensive. After I calmed myself, my wife and I spoke about it that night at length. We cried together. When I prayed alone later, I had a clear insight into my escape into busyness, just like my dad had. I asked God for the grace to find Him in my family, to die to my own compulsions and live for my family first. That confrontation shook me awake. After that time, when I came home I was much better at being home. At coming home earlier. Or I should say I chose to be home.
Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen would agree with this man:
There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence in search of an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?
Our own Deacon Alex Albert at Notre Dame Seminary preached some fire this week! Electric. See the text of it here: http://lumenest.blogspot.com/2016/01/shall-we-drink.html
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix released for the first time ever in its history a documentary-style short film that seeks to create awareness of a crisis in masculinity found in today’s society.
A bit of an eclectic post today. My son has a friend in Iowa who plays the video game, League of Legends, which, I understand, is a “battle arena” game populated by mythological warriors. In any event, this friend shared with my son one of the new songs in the game that accompanies the “loading” of the mythic character named Diana, Scorn of the Moon. The song is based on poetic text called Daylight’s End, sung by classically trained Lisa Thorn. It is an ode to the pagan cult of the Moon that Diana sees herself as the herald and defender of against the majority cult of the Sun. It’s a haunting piece. I share it here only because of my fascination with its strange beauty, and because it — with my Christian imagination — seems it could just as easily be put into the mouth of Lucifer in the midst of the Passion, gloating as the light of the sun/Son is extinguished and night begins its ostensible triumph (cf Matt. 27:45). I include the song and its poetic text below.
Ask not the sun why she sets
Why she shrouds her light away
Or why she hides her glowing gaze
When night turns crimson gold to grey
For silent falls the guilty sun
As day to dark does turn
One simple truth she dare not speak:
Her light can only blind and burn
No mercy for the guilty
Bring down their lying sun
Blood so silver black by night
Upon their faces pale white
Cruel moon, bring the end
The dawn will never rise again.
A bit lengthy 2006 journal entry in honor of today’s Gospel call to re-minding metanoia (Mark 1:15: Repent! Metanoeite!)
As I frequently do for conscience examination, I was recently re-reading St. John of the Cross’ exploration of how the seven deadly sins take on new vigor in spiritually earnest but immature people. I was grabbed this go-around by this paragraph:
These beginners feel so fervent and diligent in their spiritual exercises and undertakings that a certain kind of secret pride is generated in them … in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have, and sometimes they give expression to this criticism like the pharisee who despised the publican while he boasted and praised God for the good deeds he himself accomplished. The devil, desiring the growth of pride and presumption in these beginners, often increases their fervor and readiness to perform such works, and other ones, too. For he is quite aware that all these works and virtues are not only worthless for them, but even become vices. Some of these persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy; and so by both word and deed they condemn and detract others whenever the occasion arises…
As I read his words, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a mentor many years ago about what he called “unholy competition.” Here’s what I wrote in my journal after our conversation (quoting him):
I notice, especially among zealous converts to the faith, that there’s an intense need to judge one’s sense of spiritual worth or success by constantly comparing oneself to others — either by way of self-loathing (they’re better than me) or self-righteousness (I’m better than them). I find that this unhealthy competition can span things as diverse as suffering (whose suffering is more impressive?), piety (whose piety is more earnest and authentic?), orthodoxy (who is more accurately faithful to the Truth?), experience (whose spiritual experiences are more remarkable?), knowledge (who has read more books?), liturgy (whose liturgical sensibility is rubrically purest of all?) or even sinfulness (who’s the greater sinner?). The problem with these is not with suffering, piety and the like, which are necessary parts of Christian existence, but the underlying twisted attitude toward them. For the competitive, awareness of these elements of Christian life becomes not a means for growth in self-forgetting love of God and neighbor, but rather becomes a way to beat others up; to gain attention; to obliquely gain a sense of superiority; or to feed and/or alleviate the guilt or pain plaguing an over- or under-inflated ego. The real spiritual sickness of unholy competitors is a soupy mix of pride, vainglory, envy, or maybe something like low self-esteem. The only antidote to this mess is humility and charity with a healthy dose of realism given by a friend, spouse or mentor; or, better, by a detractor…
That side-reflection led me back to St. John again, to his marvelous and incisive description of what a non-competitive humility and charity and realism look like in the Christian who has matured beyond the beginner’s cleverly-disguised egoism. In the more mature Christian whom God has led through the purgative nights, there remains the very natural human proclivity to compare and, in a sense, compete. John seems to describe a “holy envy,” which would be a form of “holy competitiveness.” What separates this from the “unholy” version? I think it is the interior tectonic shift of conversion the Ascent-Night describe, that takes one from a primarily inward-turned, self-focused and self-protective ego, to an outward-turned, God/neighbor-focused ego that wants not self-validation but conversion above all else. The purgative nights burn away concupiscent self-obsession and dawn within what [Réginald Marie Garrigou-]LaGrange describes as the redeemed mindset: “When a man’s thoughts are habitually populated more by consideration of the welfare of others than by thoughts of his own welfare.” In the immature Christian, the ego consistently serves as the primary index of personal fulfillment, whereas in the mature Christian it is God and the neighbor who serve as the primary index of personal fulfillment. This is what Catholic Social Teaching calls “integral human fulfillment” — the magnanimous soul’s vision of fulfillment being capacious, generous, communal, defined by self-gift. The Mature say to their God-neighbor (per 1 John 4:19-21): your fulfillment is mine, and my fulfillment is had through, with, in and for you. Here’s St. John’s look at the mature state of mind:
[The humble] think everyone else is far better than they are, and usually possess a holy envy of them and would like to emulate their service of God. Since they are truly humble, their growing fervor and the increased number of their good deeds and the gratification they receive from them only cause them to become more aware of their debt to God and the inadequacy of their service to him, and thus the more they do, the less satisfaction they derive from it. Their charity and love makes them want to do so much for God that what they actually do accomplish seems as nothing. This loving solicitude goads them, preoccupies them, and absorbs them to such an extent that they never notice what others do or do not accomplish, but if they should, they then think, as I say, that everyone is better than they. They think they themselves are insignificant, and want others to think this also and to belittle and slight their deeds. Moreover, even though others do praise and value their works, these souls are unable to believe them; such praises seem strange to them. These souls humbly and tranquilly long to be taught by anyone who might be a help to them. This desire is the exact opposite of that other desire we mentioned above, of those who want to be themselves the teachers in everything. When these others notice that someone is trying to give them some instruction, they themselves take the words from their very mouths as though they already know everything. Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. Because they consider their deeds insignificant, they do not want to make them known. They are even ashamed to speak of them to their spiritual directors because they think these deeds are not worth mentioning. They are more eager to speak of their faults and sins, and reveal these to others, than of their virtues. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God.
Wade in the water
We have at last come to the Ordinal Sundays, the “days of counting” following Epiphany as we celebrate the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the river Jordan. It’s a feast of great theological density that, among other things, celebrates the first “public” manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity to Israel.
As Jesus wades with St. John the Baptist into the muddy waters of the Jordan river, the voice of the Father thunders in well-pleased joy over his beloved Son. Joy explodes! The Gospel tells us the heavens were “torn open” as the messianic Spirit descends (cf Is. 64:1) to anoint the Body of Jesus for his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, free prisoners, bring recovery of sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaim a jubilee “year of favor” from the Lord (Luke 4:18-21). “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” According to rabbinic lore, the dove of peace Noah once released from the Ark, that never returned (Gen. 8:12), would finally come again when the Messiah came. This dove came down over the Jordan and remained with the “lamb led to the slaughter” (cf Is. 53:7; John 1:29) throughout His ministry (cf Matt. 12:28) as He entered our violent and war-torn world, offering Himself as a sacrificial sin-offering to reconcile all things by His Blood (Col. 1:20; Heb. 9:14).
In the Eastern Church this feast would be called the Theophany, the “manifestation of God.” Jesus, by stepping into the filthy river waters in order to purify them, reveals God as unthinkably merciful — John the Baptist was totally taken aback (Matt. 3:14)! In the Jordan, God reveals that He is ready not merely to pardon humanity’s sins, but to take on Himself the “sins of the world” as a scapegoat (cf 2 Cor. 5:21). Today is the feast of the Giver of Life who freely chose to be submerged in the filthy waters of repentance that, at the end of their course, empty out into the Dead Sea. This descent and rising out of the waters is an act of divine condescension that anticipates the Cross and Resurrection. Note in the Gospel on the First Sunday of Lent that immediately after His baptism the Spirit’s first work is to drive Jesus into the wilderness, like a scapegoat (cf Lev. 16:10), to confront the father of sin and tempter of humanity. In fact, everything Jesus does during His life is a proleptic (forward looking) anticipation of the Cross (cf Matt. 8:16-17), where the confrontation between the the Author of Life with the Prince of Death reaches its apogee and in the Resurrection its victorious conclusion.
By stepping into the waters of the Jordan, Jesus sanctifies all waters, rendering them “baptismal,” i.e. capable of being the cleansing and re-creating flood of God’s limitless mercy that destroys not the sinner, but sin and its wage. Every time you dip your fingers in the holy water font in church to receive a fresh splash of grace, remember how they first were made holy and feel a touch of awe.
Okay, enough didacticism! Now to speak the language of beauty: my wife.
During the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord my wife Patti, who is a music director at St. James Major parish in New Orleans, sang a duet of the “Negro spiritual,” Wade in the Water, with a popular local Gospel-blues artist, Cornelius “CC” Celestine. It was a post-Communion meditation. I caught them rehearsing before Mass in the church stairwell, and quickly pressed record on my phone. My wife hears all the flaws in this impromptu rendition, but all I hear is soul.
The Fellowship of the Table
…when Jesus wanted to explain to His followers what the meaning of his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. — N. T. Wright
When Patti and I got married and had children, I began to learn things good, bad and indifferent about myself that I was never really aware of before. It seems when you marry and have your own family, you begin to unearth patterns of thinking and behavior from your family of origin that, while you were single, appeared to lay dormant.
One of those patterns I became aware of was my gut level aversion to sitting down for a family meal. That had not been, for the most part, a habit of my own childhood. I preferred to eat alone, efficiently, in haste and with minimal interaction. But my wife insisted that regular family meals be a part of our new family life. Though I subscribed in theory to the idea, my neuro-pathways has been so deeply etched by lifelong habits that each meal became for me a hardship; an inner battle between a good idea and an ingrained habit. The idea said, mane nobiscum, “remain with us” (Luke 24:29); the habit said, exivit continuo, “he immediately went out” (John 13:30).
I knew that the family meal was meant to serve as a focal point of communion, unity, conversation, bonding, story telling, schedule planning and building a common vision of who we are. I began to “get” the many ways it served as the most important means of communicating the fact that love means enjoying spending “idle” time with one another. I often prayed for grace to overcome my desire to flee the table, and brougfht to Confession my occasional selfish protests to my wife that we get a reprieve from this form of torture now and again. My deep-set autonomic aversion to this practice seemed somehow impervious to the inroads of my lofty sentiments.
That said, I noticed, after about four years (around the time our third child was born) of being relentlessly faithful to daily meals, there was a subtle change at work in me. While there was no one “wow” moment where I saw I had suddenly changed course, I noticed I began to feel more at home at the table, less restless, though it was more a flutter of ease than a pacific state of being. At around the ten-year mark, I do remember well one evening when my wife announced that we would have a “casual” dinner and everyone could eat when and where they wanted. To my shock, I felt sad. I wanted to sit and eat and talk. It was a moment of genuine surprise, and I laughed out loud. I realized then that after ten years of fidelity to my wife’s marvelous vision of family unity around a table, I had become a different man with a different vision. While it was (and is) not a perfectly consistent disposition, something genuinely new had come into being within me: the ability to enjoy being with my family over a meal and appreciate the truth that time-wasting is essential to building intimacy and communion.
“Only the one who does the will of the Father” walks into the Kingdom of love in the family of God (cf Matt. 7:21). Thank you, Lord Jesus, for obligating us through Mother Church to your Eucharistic meal, where we learn in celebration and sabbath the beauty of wasting time together in you, O Banquet Host, Father-forever and Lover of Mankind.
But they urged Jesus, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. (Luke 24:29-31)
Eccentric thoughts on time-management
From an email I sent to a friend who said he was working on disciplining his family’s time management in 2016. You can see why so few people email me back a second time.
…Yes, time management.
A constant struggle for me!
My spiritual director years ago
handed me an ultimatum:
You won’t make progress in your spiritual life
if you don’t get more ordo in your caritatis.
[ordo caritatis = “the order of charity.” It’s St. Augustine’s
expression for a well ordered love]
And by that my director was referring to better organizing my
time/commitments to serve my core vocation/responsibilities.
Trying to cultivate unity and love and virtues and other good things
in your family life, without a thought-out plan
that includes short and long-term goals,
is perilous — and we have learned the hard way.
I more than anyone.
I have come to think more and more
of time management in our home as a liturgical reverb
from our sacramental marriage. As priests, prophets and shepherds
of the domestic church, Patti and I are tasked with organizing,
planning and executing our life’s good order, to the glory of God and
for the good of our children and all those brought into the ambit of our lives.
It’s really almost like the time-organizing and sanctifying
ceaseless celebration of the hours of the Divine Office.
We have to have an horarium, as they say in church parlance
[…] For example, I love what St. Benedict says about time-order:
“The day begins the night before.” So making sure our night ends well,
in terms of bedtime, activities, not going to sleep anxious
or angry or un-reconciled, ending in prayer and with a blessing —
it makes the next day vastly different for all of us.
So we try plan Benedict’s time-management aphorism into our routine
and it really bears such good fruits when we do it.
[…] We’ve tried to make our ‘home economics’ into a version of JP2’s vision [FC#56]:
“Christian marriage is in itself a liturgical action glorifying God
in Jesus Christ and in the Church. By celebrating it,
Christian spouses profess their gratitude to God
for the sublime gift bestowed on them of being able
to live in their married and family lives the very love of God
for people and that of the Lord Jesus for the Church, His bride.”
God’s love for us in Jesus is so very well organized, planned,
and executed, while also including in its sway all the crazy-unpredictability of real life.
It’s laborious and it’s filled with constant missteps
and resets of the compass after going off course.
I can relate to such a plan.
[…] This all makes me think about the gift of time,
and the really cool thought that we are called to
make time holy (‘sanctify time’), which acknowledges
that time is a creature that relies on us to make it holy
and lift it into the Kingdom. How we use our time determines
whether or not the time we have been given gets consecrated
or not. We can say that we spend time, invest time, save time
borrow time, beat time, hoard time, defy time, manage time,
need time, lack time, squander time, buy time, waste time,
gain time, pass time, use time, take time, kill time…but do we
consecrate time, sanctify time, make time holy, and lift it up
into God’s “I AM” Sabbath, where time is no longer the slave of death
but the handmaid of life. When we consecrate time in Christ, we
punch holes in eternity, cause irruptions of grace, and make sure
that nothing good that happened in time is lost in eternity.
How do I do that? Well, the simple and seemingly cliché answer is:
when you love God and neighbor in time, time is saved…
Oh, I will leave you with this awesome Negro Spiritual about time
that I have always found deeply moving:
Mercy [from a 2012 post]
In Jesus, Word made flesh, the Ancient of Days was finally given chance to fully reveal Himself, to show all His cards. The New Testament is unanimous that He did this precisely on the Cross, where He revealed the deepest secret hidden in God: “God is love.” But more, there was revealed an even more mysterious truth: when overwhelmed by the fiercest possible rejection — death — love turns not into wrath, but into mercy, which is love encountering, pursuing and overwhelming evil with the undeserved offer to be reconciled, restored and healed.
Here is the deepest secret of Christianity, its wildest mystery and hardest truth: mercy is the justice of the Kingdom. Mercy is not supererogatory, but the Christian “ought,” “must,” “shalt.” Mercy is the sine qua non, the choice a disciple of Christ must make if s/he is to belong to Christ and inherit the Kingdom built on the mercy of the Cross. When life grows dark, betrayal shatters or lies entangle, it is then the Christian is at last permitted to “be who they are,” part of the Body of a merciful God, members not in word only but in-deed. For the Christian, God is not a sublime object of our detached contemplative admiration, but a troubled Font of paschal waters who awaits our choice to plunge into the infinite flood of living water surging from the open side of His dead Christ. 84 year old St. Ignatius of Antioch “got” this, as in 108 A.D. he wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome: “Fire, cross, struggles with wild animals, having my bones dislocated, having them mangle my body, crunch my flesh between their teeth, cruel tortures inflicted by the devil—let it all come upon me, if only I make my way to Jesus Christ! I would rather die, and come to Jesus, than be king over the entire earth. I seek the One who died for us all. I love the One who rose again for the sake of all of us. The birth pangs have begun. Do not get in the way of my coming to real life. Permit me to be an imitator of the sufferings of my God.”
I was listening to Fr. Tom Hopko and he, as ever, made me laugh. He recounted an encounter with one of his Orthodox parishioners who said to him, “Father, I try to be a good person and say my prayers. So why do all these bad things keep happening to me?” He replied, “Well, let me ask you. What do the Gospels say good people who pray should expect in this life?” “Good things,” she replied. Father responded, “Yes, exactly.” After a pause, he continued, “and what exactly are those good things according to Jesus?” The woman didn’t dare answer because, he said, she probably sensed he was setting her up. He said, “Well, Jesus tells us that good people who pray are poor, humble, hungry, thirsty, weeping, lambs among wolves, cross-carrying, persecuted, insulted, hated but merciful, enemy-loving, demon-beset disciples who bring about God’s kingdom through unwavering faith in a crucified God, who place their minds in hell and don’t despair, and who love with the very love of God in a totally loveless and devastated world. These folks, for Jesus, are the ones who are agalliasthe [Matthew 5:12], exceedingly glad, the most joyful of people on the planet because they share the lot of a God who was crucified and raised for love of humanity. God filled all of these things we call ‘bad’ with super-abundant good things. That’s the paradoxy of orthodoxy!” He continued, “Have no expectations, except to be fiercely tempted to your very last breath. St. Anthony said it. He said: ‘A truly wise person knows the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false and clings fiercely to what is good, true, and beautiful, but fully expects to be tested, to be tried, and to be tempted till his very last breath.’ He said that without being tempted, no one can enter God’s Kingdom—without temptation, no salvation. The whole life of a man on Earth is a trial, according to Scripture. Job said it. So we are being tried every moment, we should expect it. We should never expect the trial to go away. We don’t ask God to take our crosses away. We ask for the power to carry them. God doesn’t tempt anybody. But in the providence of God, we are tested all the time so that our salvation can be ours, and that we could be victorious by the victory of Christ.
Narcissism and faith
I wrote this entry in my journal a number of years ago after speaking with an acquaintance, seeking wisdom about an extremely difficult working relationship I had had with a narcissistic coworker.
The narcissist’s motto is “Me first!” Everything’s all about them. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement, crave admiration and attention. A legend in their own mind, the world is reflected in their image. They’ll corner you at a party, recount their life saga. Some narcissists are unlikable, flagrant egotists. Others can be charming, intelligent, caring–that is, until their guru-status is threatened. When you stop stroking their ego or beg to disagree, they can turn on you and become punishing. They often monopolize conversations. They may belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior. They may feel a sense of entitlement — and when they don’t receive special treatment, they may become impatient or angry. They may insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care. At the same time, they have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. They may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, they may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior. Or they may feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection. — Judith Orloff, MD
Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We’ve all known them. Some are the life of a party, others the life-sucking dread of all who know them. Some are powerful leaders, others wallow in self-pity. Some are master manipulators, others are harmless inhabitants of a me-centered world. But if you are one, what hope do you have of allowing Christ to transform with charity your insuperably self-referential world?
Gratefully, [a woman I know] shared a story of a man with NPD that gave me a different perspective on my situation. A dozen or so years ago, this man was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, but after his life had come crashing down around him and in desperation he reached out to find help. His wildly self-absorbed lifestyle had alienated him from friends and loved ones, and destroyed his marriage. After experiencing a powerful conversion to faith in Christ, he decided to fully embrace the diagnosis as an essential part of his path to redemption. She said he described his narcissism as “reflexively referring everything back to myself,” and called his faith journey the path of a “crucified narcissist.” As I recall, she said he said, “the blessing of this curse is that I have built into my psyche all the ingredients of my path to holiness. I don’t need to wear hair shirts for penance. I just embrace the inner war between Christ’s love and my self-absorption. I beg God every day that charity wins, but I also know reality. Likely I’ll be like this until Purgatory burns it all out of me. In a strange way, narcissism can make you the humblest of people if you can accept it with humor, honesty and ask God to make good of it … in a certain sense, everyone has a touch of this illness. It’s all a matter of degree. So maybe my call is to serve as an extreme reminder to the rest of us that we’re all more or less egoists who need Jesus to save us.” [My acquaintance] ended, saying: “You need to pray that [this person] encounters Christ in [their] disorder, and pray that you can learn to love [them] the way God would ask of you.”
This man we spoke about evidently has made it a part of his personal life mission to quietly seek out those who suffer from psychological disorders and show them how God can shine light through their heavy burdens. His story reminded me of a remarkable quote from Anthony Schefter, who shared his insights on how his schizophrenia coexists with hope in Christ’s redeeming power. I’ll end my entry today with his quote:
When this is all over, then there will be a life of blessedness in Heaven. My freedoms were taken away from me in this life—freedom to work, to have a family, to be healthy, to pursue what I most wanted, the Catholic priesthood; even to be myself in many ways—and so I know I will have a glorious and never-ending freedom in the age to come. To anyone who is newly diagnosed with mental illness, or to anyone who cares for someone who is, I have this to say: Never give up. It will get better. I cannot promise you anything but the most difficult of roads, but God has entrusted you with this burden because you can bear it, and bear it well for him; and he has something very good in store for you at the end of a lot of chapters that will make all of this more than worth your while. When this is all over, you and I will be able to say together: we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Have hope, trust Jesus, and never quit.
Have no anxiety, unless you have anxiety
From my journal:
I realized God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ but that the situations in which I found myself were His will for me. He wanted me to accept those situations as from His hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at His disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservation, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or hesitate. He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute faith in God’s existence, providence, his concern for the minutest details, his power to sustain and protect me. It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the fear that God will not bear you up. Like the eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first lets go of all support — only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless, and totally relaxed. — Walter Joseph Ciszek, S.J., writing of his horrid years spent in Soviet prison camps
I recently exchanged emails with a friend, and in our exchange I recalled something I had not thought of in a while. Back in the early 1990’s I suffered from crippling anxiety. Among other things, I wound up in the hospital. Eventually I learned to discern its origin and developed strategies for managing internal and external factors that fed into it. For those who have suffered from any form of anxiety disorder, you know there is no more fearful experience than suffering the chaotic storm of terror deep within that threatens to fragment you at the core of your identity.
Through the combined wisdom of a skilled counselor and a spiritual director, I learned to integrate my faith into my anxiety. I found redemptive healing, which means that, though I do not expect my anxiety in this life will ever vanish, as it is so much a part of my personality makeup, I’ve learned its genesis, its meaning and have been able to join it to my interior acts of faith and hope. Two psalms (88 and 91) and the Lucan agony in the garden (especially Luke 22:44) became my pathway to discovering radical honesty before God and redemption in this terrifying night. There I found Emmanuel, God-with-us, to be an immovable anchor of hope as our God descended into this night and made each day anew a fountain of luminous grace.
Let me drill down just a bit into this last point, using some loose anecdotal evidence. I have known many people over the years who have claimed that God has brought healing to one or another form of psycho-somatic disorder in their life: depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, among others. What’s been true in every case, myself included, is that each healing that is named and claimed is never absolute and total. Though some aspect of the disorder may have been alleviated, reduced or even removed, what becomes clear (especially as time elapses) is that the complex cognitive, emotional, behavioral, relational web into which that disorder was once woven remains in need of transformation, purification, growth. To use St. Paul’s image in 2 Cor. 12:7-9, though one thorn may have been removed, others have been left behind, in spite of our fervent petitions and protests that God take it all away. Why? When Jesus schooled St. Paul, He seemed to be saying that they’re left behind so that the lessons of weakness can be taught by grace. What might those be? Humility, trust, abandonment to divine providence, poverty of spirit, compassion, surrender, reliance on God and on others. Or — and this may be the greatest reason — we stand to gain inestimable greatness by the struggle that gives birth to an array of human and divine virtues. Especially that most peculiar and uniquely Christian virtue of rejoicing in and boasting of one’s weaknesses:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one–I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed for ever, knows that I do not lie. — 2 Cor. 10:23-31
The Council of Trent wonderfully taught that after Baptism, which removes the guilt of original and personal sin and all punishment due to sin, God still leaves in us the wound of concupiscence, that tendency toward evil that is, as the medievals called it, the “tinder for sin.” The Council argues further that God leaves this wound behind in us “for the sake of the battle,” i.e. so that redeemed humanity can freely cooperate in the work of saving grace to overcome Satan, sin and death. As St. Augustine memorably worded this point: “God created us without us; but he did not will to save us without us.” We might say also, to steal the language of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that God does not wish to grant us cheap healing that simply trades our sorrows away, but only costly healing that elicits from our freedom supremely greater things that God alone, without our cooperation, could never have given us. In this way God honors the dignity of our being made in His image and likeness, as collaborators in His work of creating a new heavens and a new earth where the justice of God abides forever. What a thought! Out of my unresolved and insignificant struggles, woven into the fabric of Christ’s wound-riven Body, is born a new creation built out of the ruins of the old.
A final, somewhat disconnected pop-culture thought. Skip ahead a few years. In 1994 The Pretenders released a new song. When I first heard it, I enjoyed its story of faithful friendship. But when I suffered a brief and very intense recurrence of anxiety in the late 1990’s, I once again heard this song on the radio one day and received a fresh and tear-filled infusion of grace. Into terror, God sang with me…
Saints Basil the Great (+379) and Gregory Nazianzen (+389), who were both brilliant theologians, bishops and close friends. Here’s a nugget of wisdom from each.
Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to one who has nothing. Neither is it small to God, if we have given what we could. Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good. –– St. Gregory Nazianzen
When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator. — St. Basil the Great
Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men. (Catechism #721)
“The Blessed Virgin Mary is born to be Mother. The supreme consolation that Our Lady receives at the foot of the cross of her Son is the assurance that her vocation as Mother does not end with Christ’s death. The Lord commands the world, ‘Behold your Mother.’ The resurrection begins for Mary – and for us – with these words. The Blessed Virgin’s womb remains for ever fruitful. Mary leads us to Christ, but Christ leads us back to his Mother, for without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us. The Lord wills to “let his face shine upon” us through the face of the Mother of God. We serve a Mother who seems to grow more beautiful as new generations rise up and call her blessed.” – G.K. Chesterton
Loving your child, no matter what
I was reminded of one of my journal entries when I read this fantastic interview with Brandon Vogt re his new book on fallen away Catholics. Here’s my journal entry from last Spring:
I have a friend who says, with a wry smile, “If your kids are perfect, I can’t be your friend.” She and her husband are fantastic people and are committed Catholics. What my wife and I love most about them is their down-to-earth ability to deal with the ragged edges of real life without surrendering the soaring Gospel call to seamless perfection; to discern fearlessly those shades of gray that necessarily abide where black and white together touch earth.
They’re like another couple I know [they gave me the green light to share about them here]. Their daughter has gone against everything they stand for. They are excellent parents, in my judgment, and had poured their hearts and souls into her faith formation over the years. But she has rejected the faith, moved in with her boyfriend, quit college, drinks alcohol to excess and flaunts these things seemingly to hurt them. While this is certainly not an uncommon story, I think the parents’ response to it is. They are heartbroken and pray fervently for her return to the faith. But they also have this astonishing serenity in the way they speak of her to me. In that serenity there’s a quality that’s really hard to describe. It’s something like this: They don’t need their daughter to make them look good or feel successful. She’s not part of some veneer they use to project an unreal image of themselves to others. And they don’t live in the vicious and self-flagellating cycle — “What did we do wrong?” — that makes their daughter’s choices about them. They just love her. Like the father of the prodigal son who every day waited with love for his son’s return, heedless of the public shame his son’s choices had heaped on him, these parents hold one thing in mind: their daughter’s well-being.
It’s been several years since this all first happened, and their attitude has remained unchanged. The dad told me recently that he said to his daughter not long ago: “You know we love you no matter what, even though we don’t approve of some of your decisions. But know that no matter what you do, or who you become, we tell God every day we are grateful He gave us you as our daughter. We’d never want anyone else but you.” He said she broke down crying, and thanked him for his words. He said he doesn’t know what’s next for her, but added this: “This seems to me to be the fork in the road of parenting: You can’t unchoose your children as your biological progeny, but you can unchoose your love for them. Give up on them. To me what really rocks about Jesus is that He never unchooses us even when we unchoose Him. So my wife and I say: how can we unchoose? The daughter we were entrusted with is the real one, not the one we want. Right, we want her to be responsible and good and faith filled, but she is who she is and that’s what we’re asked to love.”
One of my favorite theology professors once dramatically read aloud in class this quote from Blaise Pascal:
What a chimaera then is man, what a novelty, what a monster, what chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, yet an imbecile earthworm; depository of truth, yet a sewer of uncertainty and error; pride and refuse of the universe. Who shall resolve this tangle?
After a long pause, he took off his glasses to look at us directly. Then he said: “And this, gentlemen, this is what God is hopelessly in love with. That is the Good News.”
Give me wonder, O Lord
From a journal entry:
A man may go into the field and say his prayer and be aware of God, or, he may be in Church and be aware of God; but, if he is more aware of Him because he is in a quiet place, that is his own deficiency and not due to God, who is present in the same way in all things and places, and is willing to give Himself everywhere what is in Him. He knows God rightly who knows Him everywhere. — Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328)
This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. — Gaudium et Spes #43
When I was a child, before the age of 12, I had a profound sense that everything around me was alive with a surplus of meaning; that everything, no matter what it was, contained a vast territory to be explored. Every day I knew when I woke up the world would without fail yield a fresh set of surprises I had somehow missed the day before. I guess it was simply the wonder every child is born with, and which most eventually seem to lose. Over time the sphere of wonder I lived in grew smaller. What profound grief it brought me. I remember vividly one day in the late Fall, when I was eleven or twelve, crying as I looked at the steam rising off the pond near our house, and somehow I realized — as if I had eaten some forbidden fruit — that this mystical transaction was nothing more than H2O escaping its liquid form. Nothing more, as my multi-dimensional world had grown flat.
I recall the ways my schooling over time wore me down, evacuated from me that sense of meaning-surplus, dehydrated the plump fruits of wonder in my soul. I experienced school learning as amassing new information useful to certain tasks, memorizing cold data required for acceptable grades, checking lifeless boxes needful for my future career. School required orderly rows, uniform learning and stringent assessments. It imposed strictly controlled behavior on restless children. I felt straight-jacketed by the clock’s cold precision and an endless procession of artificial activities devoid of imaginative play.
Reality was, for me, outside in the cathedral of nature. I was blessed to grow up amid woods and fields and streams and ponds teeming with life; a world ordered by its solar and lunar rhythms, by wind and clouds and rain and snow; by migrations and molting, budding and blooming, birthing and dying. All of this world was filled with unplanned surprises and organic routines that seemed wholly in sync with my deepest self. No angular rows or neat stacks, but only brambly patches of blackberry, chaotic piles of leaves, butterflies that silently flashed their varied rainbows in uneven beats, or wasps that without warning stung fierce and deep. And then there was the ocean! When we’d set out into Narragansett Bay for a day and a night to set anchor, the sky would yawn its widest span and the generous sea filled my lungs with its salty yield. I could breathe so deep!
For me, God ceased to hide in the world outside, where even the lichen-covered rocks were alive. There His music far surpassed the droning tones of sleepy worshippers who, when I was small, seemed to fall into a trance as soon they settled into those overly orderly pews in church. I thought to myself once when I was four or five: “Wouldn’t God want everyone to step in the aisle and play, if He’s really here?” Though I didn’t have a rich vocabulary of faith then, I knew that what I found everywhere in the natural world spoke of reality as playful, wonderful, terribly unpredictable, sometimes fearful and wholly alive. Would not, I intuited, their Origin be like that and want that from us? St. Augustine’s words capture this intuition:
And what is this God? I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”; and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants answered, “I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; and they answered, “Neither are we the God whom you seek.” And I replied to all these things which stand around the door of my flesh: “You have told me about my God, that you are not he. Tell me something about him.” And with a loud voice they all cried out, “He made us.”
As does Baruch 3:34-36:
Before him the stars at their posts shine and rejoice. When he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker. Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him.
For those early years of life, I had inhabited a sacramental universe; a translucent universe in which the invisible God, like a child playing hide-and-seek, cannot long contain His excited giggles from those who seek Him. I knew its lexicon, its syntax and grammar, its meter and rhyme, its incense and icons. But as time passed, this world was stolen from me and the bread turned to stone.
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3
Then I came to faith and awoke to the new creation (cf 2 Corinthians 5:17), created to be inhabited only by the childlike.
O Lord, grant me wonder and reveal in me your new creation hidden in bread and wine — a world indwelt by a heavenly God who made, and who was made, earth.
Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there. — Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, saying #77
This is a quasi-theological reflection via art appreciation that I wrote last year.
Several years ago, my wife Patti shared with me a music video of Lara Fabian singing Lucio Dalla’s Caruso. I could immediately see why she loved Fabian’s performance, as both women know how to become wholly transparent to the art they perform. Della’s song expresses the tragic beauty of love in the face of death. It recounts the sentiments of a dying man, the famous 19th century Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, who had found great success in his career as an opera singer — especially in America. His personal life was a mess. The lyrics of this song capture Caruso’s passionate love for a young woman he fell in love with near the end of his life and with whom he had a child. It plays on the primal tensions of Greek tragedy between eros and thanatos, love and death. Those tensions profoundly reshape the way Caruso looks back on his life’s successes and leads him back to what he comes to believe is ultimately essential: the bond of human love that overcomes even death’s finality.
St. John Paul II said in his Letter to Artists, “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.” Dalla and Fabian masterfully lead us there, where broken humanity seeks God in the shadows (cf Acts 17:27-28), driven by an irrepressible hope that, in the end, immortal love is the measure of all things.
The video includes the lyrics, translated from Italian to English.
From a 2013 post:
My very favorite historical theologian, Aidan Nichols, O.P., offered in his fascinating and little noticed book, Christendom Awake, a new “liturgical” approach to the intractable debates over abortion; an approach that draws its inspiration from today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents.
Nichols suggested that the Church, in a single and dramatic act, canonize as “martyrs of innocence” the countless millions of brutally and unjustly aborted children. He examines the many debates that have surrounded this proposal, especially the challenges of finding real precedent in the Catholic Tradition for canonizing the pre-born or those whose death is not explicitly and freely endured in the face of odium fidei, “hatred for the faith.” One important effect of such an mass canonization would be, he argues, that Catholic Christians who formally cooperate in direct abortions (see these distinctions here) would suddenly find themselves ranked not with the “noble army of martyrs,” but rather, like Alessandro Serenelli, St. Maria Goretti’s murderer, with the ignoble perpetrators of martyrdom.
And there’s a sacramental-symbolic depth to this as well. The womb, in Scripture, serves as the most delicate icon of God’s supremely compassionate, tender and protective love for humanity. In Hebrew, raḥam, which means compassionate is a cognate of raḥmi, which means womb. Those who abide in God’s compassion are seen to be like a child in the mother’s womb, as in Isaiah’s stirring play on the words compassion and womb in 49:14-15.
But Zion said, “Yahweh has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me!” “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you,” says the Lord.
There is no missing the symbolic beauty in God’s artful economy that His compassionate Incarnation first came to be in the “blessed” womb of the Virgin Mary.
Let’s turn today to these powerless Innocents who suffered as scapegoats for the Lamb of God, and seek their powerful intercession.
Today’s Mass Collect: O God,
whom the Holy Innocents confessed
and proclaimed on this day,
not by speaking but by dying,
grant, we pray,
that the faith in you which we confess
with our lips may also speak through our manner of life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
A friend sent me his Holy Family homily on the second reading (the unedited text of Colossians 3) and asked my feedback on the way he treated the “submission/subordination” language. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote, edited here to make sense outside of the rest of my email. It’s a syntaxical mess, but it is an email. For that it’s worth…
…The real genius (and revolution) of the Ephesians 5 augmentation of Colossians 3’s “wives be subordinate/husbands love your wives” is its affirmation of the radical mutuality of marriage; and mutuality here means mutual self-giving … As JP2 said in his Letter to Families, “It is because of this love that husband and wife become a mutual gift. Love contains the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of the other and of his or her absolute uniqueness.” … for Ephesians 5 the solidity, permanence, fruitfulness, unity and happiness of marriage depend on mutuality, with its respect, love and synergy. Especially the synergy, which is really the characteristic dynamic of love between persons made in God’s image. Couples that cease to synergize/cooperate, who cease to “submit to one another” (cf Ephesians 5:21) — by either unilaterally dominating or separating into parallel orbits or manipulating or interrelating in hostility — cease to be able to “be who they are,” i.e. sacramental signs of the firestorm of divine-human love that is Christ. Mutual submission is all about creating a domestic culture of cooperative leadership that is love-based, respect-based, good-of-the-spouse-and-children-based, virtue-based, Christ-based. And for those in your congregation who are married, they’ll know “mutual submission” is really hard work, cruciform, requiring super-human sacramental grace to overcome really human baggage.
I also think of what Christ’s “subordination” to the Father looks like in the Trinity: perfect synergy, unity, harmony, creativity, self-giving, other-referential sacrificial obedience, etc. There I’m able to get an inkling of just how radically divine revelation has reinvented language, reinvesting it with new meanings that we, as theologians and preachers, must bring to life, bridge, translate, exegete for our culture-inhabiting faithful. Think about the back-flips of Philippians 2:5-11 — The Master becomes the slave, then the Father exalts the slave as Lord of all creation, overthrowing the Master-slave dialectic and leaving in its ruins a lover-beloved, a bridegroom-bride, a communion of persons, of family and of friends. Even at the apex of His exaltation above all, Christ remains a servant of all; the Most Low God, if you will (cf Luke 12:37). […]
Be careful when you preach wife-subordination, because some husbands are not worthy of being subordinate to. I’ve had very close and personal experience of some of those unworthies, and have seen the wives who submitted themselves to their damaging leadership for years. “Wives be subordinate to your husbands” was the universal Greco-Roman-Jewish dictum, so there was not much to elaborate on for Paul when he penned that in Ephesians and Colossians. He just states it baldly. Nothing new, same ole: wives give yourself, expend yourself, serve, have children and educate them. But…Paul’s additional elaboration of the husband’s subordination after the pattern of Christ the Bridegroom, that’s really what’s wow-new here. Utterly novel. It remade entirely the meaning of her subordination … the new commentary on her subordinate role is that he also has a subordinate role…and Paul passes marriage through Christ, detailing the husband’s dismantled-rebuilt role: self-less, her-oriented, saint-making, cross-shaped charity. Paul completely re-writes her subordination by re-defining his. Suborination is not simply to a male, but to the love of the New Adam incarnated in the other. Marriage is now a mutual act of revering Christ in the other, as totus Christus, Head and Body; the Christ who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many. Paul does not offer us a detailed cultural script, but transformative language that is meant to inform all cultures. There’s something very similar in this to the way Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus, his runaway slave, back as a beloved brother; and then to free him…By telling the Master to see his slave as his equal, Paul sowed seeds of slavery’s demise. […]
3rd century Christian theologian Tertullian’s language reflects Paul’s vision beautifully: “How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in home, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. Nothing divides them either in flesh or in spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake God’s banquet, side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts. Seeing this Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present.”
On this second day of the Christmas Octave, let me share John Karl Hirten’s soaring arrangement of an Eastern liturgical text taken from the Divine Liturgy of the Nativity of Christ. The text is a poetic exploration of the Virgin Mary’s pondering heart as she wondered over the paradoxes of God-made-flesh. My wife added this into our pre-midnight Mass choir repertoire back in 1999. I recall very well singing it that night, and how it drew me deep down into the mystery as we sang it
a cappella into a dark church.
Here are the words and the sound cloud audio:
O my child, child of sweetness (repeated refrain)
How is it that I hold Thee? — Almighty
And how that I feed Thee? — Who givest bread to all
How is it that I swaddle Thee? — Who with the clouds encompasseth the whole earth
On the eve of the Nativity of our Lord let me share what I found to be a very inspiring blend of scenes from Nativity Story with the song Hallelujah, sung by the spectacularly talented three-sisters band, BarlowGirl. Lyrics below if you’re interested.
Hmm, my baby
Heaven sent You to me
All the world’s been praying
Who will save?
But who am I?
That here tonight
I hold the one
Who’ll bring us life
Hallelujah, we’ve been found
A child is born to save us now
Jesus Hallelujah, light has come
A Savior who will set us free
A promise for those who believe
Do You hear the Angels
Sing for You, my baby?
Men and kings have
Come to bow to You
But here in my arms
So close to me
The son of God
Now all can see
Hallelujah, we’ve been found
A child is born to save us now
Jesus Hallelujah, light has come
A Savior set us free
So praise to God on high
He has heard our cry (x3)
Hallelujah, we’ve been found
Hallelujah, we’ve been found
A child is born to save us now
Jesus Hallelujah, light has come
A Savior who will set us free
A promise for those who believe
Hmm, my baby
More of my journal scratchings thought I’d paste here just before God was born in a stable, hunted and sent into exile… propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem:
Just finished the Brothers Karamazov a bit ago. At one point in the midst of reading, I wrote in the back cover: “To be ‘saved’? Often it’s spoken of as a solopsistic salvation. No! I’m saved as bound to all. If I’m saved, I’m saved so that I might have the strength to carry all the unsaved on my back to the God who wills that all men be saved. Even the saints at ‘rest’ in paradisal bliss can’t stop obsessing over the salvation of us valley-of-tears sojourners. Their salvation demands ours as well. All are on my back because Christ, to whom I am grafted, carries the whole limping, bleeding, stumbling lot of humanity on His back. I am with Christ a co-worker (1 Cor 3:9), co-lover (John 13:34), co-loved (John 16:27), co-hated (John 15:20), co-sufferer (Rom 8:17), co-crucified (Gal 2:20) and co-sent (John 20:21). I am saved through, with and in Him, for others. Called to be inextricably bound up in Christ’s universal saving mission, to consecrate to this end every nanosecond of every insignificant word, gesture emerging out of my feeble, fallible, fragile God-suffused love that reveals even, especially, the most despised wretch on my back. Though I have to recognize my own psycho-spiritual limits with some people, and contain my interactions with them, how many times I’m tempted to wholly excise from my life every unpleasant person, whether by my caddy humor or calumnious judgment or dismissive apathy or calculated avoiding. Salvation is a terrible, fearful burden to bear; yet in it is absolute fulfillment.”
It was Karamazov Book VI, Chapter 3 that again froze me in my tracks:
“There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”
“On behalf of all and for all” — I just noticed this! These are the words sung by the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy as the deacon holds aloft the sanctified Gifts: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” The Canon repeatedly says: “We offer you this sacrifice for all those…We offer you…a spotless victim…for…” We = an agreed on self-offering to God. We are those sealed by covenant promises to the sacrificial offering of Christ. Co-offered with Christ’s pro vobis et pro multis, “for you and for many.” Who am I carrying? By whom am I carried?
I saw this article by Marc Barnes that said this so much better:
“Salvation, then, like everything Christ does, is not a finish-line, but a new beginning, the ordination of a particular man into a being-for-others, the breaking-open and turning-out of the soul to the world. If God has called me to the Christian life, it is not because he is flexing his arbitrary power to save “whomsoever he will” (all glory to him for leaving me speechless, pissy and without explanation as to why he chooses me and not my neighbor.) He chooses me for my neighbor. To be saved is to be for. The answer to the question why I am Catholic and not another is already written into the meaning of the word Catholic — universal. The universal donor can give to all blood types, the universal antidote counteracts all poisons, and the universal human being, that is, the Catholic human being, must be “all things to all people” — a being-for every other being, a being in a relationship of love to everything not-Catholic.”
Someone, a devout and pious Catholic, a fantastic man, said to me in the midst of a lengthy disquisition: “We’re trying to keep our family uncontaminated by our depraved culture.”
I totally get that! But…It’s a terrifying balance: A people set apart from the world (whew!) & then: Go into the whole world (Yikes!). What tensions. It’s hard to have your family, Janus-like, looking inward and outward, gathered in order to be scattered, called in order to be sent, clarified and then thrust into ambiguities. Simultaneously. Temptation: safe church mouse, assimilated worldling. Safe in the safety of the sheepfold; unsafe out among the wolves. Jesus says: “Be wise and prudent, but love those wolves (Matt 5:44). Centripetal and centrifugal, communion and mission.
The spotless Lamb set out into the wolf-pack and endured the bloody brutality; set out into the ambiguous courtroom of Pilate and endured his truth-using realpolitik; set out into the frothing rabble and endured its fickle, bloodthirsty jeering; set out into the homes of sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and endured their unclean lifestyles. For us and for our salvation, He came down from heaven to become world-leaven; Bread for eating. Here, hemmed in by ten thousand limitations, the Infinite redeemed all our terrible limits and rendered them all full of grace. Light shone into the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it. I think here of that scene in the Passion where Jesus is thrown into the heart of human chaos, and from there — there in the midst of it all — loves, pardons wretched humanity into life…
Here’s a Penny and Sparrow song, Duet, that the lead singer sings with his wife.
When a friend played it for Patti and me last week, we both loved it. As I heard it, it’s a playful “theology of the body” that joins the thrill of sexual intimacy in marriage to the “I’m not going anywhere” commitment of sacrificial fidelity to spouse and family. It’s so true that a married couple is meant to discover more and more the beauty, deep meaning and dignity of sexual intimacy as the years pass. Only after years together can you “see and know” how your one-flesh union is a sacrament of trust, and the ways it embodies an entire way of life, a love story, and how each sexual act signifies that terrifyingly intimate knowledge you have of each other; a knowledge that can be had only after long years of struggle.
This is a ~4 minute live performance, and the lyrics are below the video.
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 ’em 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
From my Journal: November 23, 1990. It’s the story of the beginning of my 25 year love affair with St. John…
My spiritual director gave me hell today. I told him I’ve been busily blitzing through various spiritual books. Catherine. Ruusbroec. Scupoli. Philokalia. Cloud of Unknowing. Freaking awesome. I can’t get enough of them. Thought he’d be impressed. But then he says a ton of things that whacked me in the solar plexus. I’m still recovering from it tonight.
You’re not practicing spiritual reading, Neal. You’re just looking for something new, more exotic, the next fix. You want to impress people that you know so much. Maybe you’ll even impress God. You’re bored with real life. You’ll become a spiritual dilettante if you keep this up. That’s not healthy. Slow and deep, not fast and broad. This isn’t what wonder looks like, it’s curiosity. The spiritual writers are relentless on curiosity. It means you’re not looking to be changed but to be entertained. Real spiritual reading makes you feel the need to live what you read first, before you dare move on to read more. You need to choose one classic and dive to the bottom. You need to sit with it for a few years, marinade. You need to be able to say more than ‘I understand,’ but let it burn in your bones. Sear your soul, not just season it. St. John of the Cross is what I am asking you to take on. He’s the safest way. The way of faith. He’s tough, tough as nails, but he’ll get you through the toughest times. No more nibbling, Tom. Get to work.
He handed me this beat up copy of the Ascent of Mount Carmel. Yikes. The cover looks depressing. […] He had this passage marked with a bookmark and highlighter. He’s such a hard ass. My spiritual director that is. Seems that’s what I need now. God, help me go deep. Give me courage. I’m afraid I’ll sink into the deep and drown. What’s down there?
Here’s that marked passage:
…All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God. God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners. If he did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness. This is why it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness….
In my dad’s Orthodox church back in the late 1980’s, an elderly Russian woman told me: “In Russia, we have a saying: Old age is for prayer. Young mothers never fret over not enough time to pray, with their many cares, because they know the grandmothers carry them to God. We also say of old age: As our days grow short we have left memories to give thanks for what was good, repent for what was evil, to ready for the judgment of God.” She said she felt that because Americans don’t see old age this way — as freedom for prayer, thanksgiving and repentance — but see it as retirement from work and as lonliness, many elderly feel lost without a purpose, and few young people reverence the irreplaceable gifts of old age. Every stage of life has its own singular meaning.
How many people find understanding and comfort from elderly people who may be lonely or ill and yet are able to instil courage by their loving advice, their silent prayers, or their witness of suffering borne with patient acceptance! At the very time when their physical energies and their level of activity are decreasing, these brothers and sisters of ours become all the more precious in the mysterious plan of Providence. — St. John Paul II
Hope in God
Here are some unedited draft notes from a presentation I just gave:
A friend of mine suffered for nearly a year with very deep depression. He said at one point to me: “The future totally vanished, and everything became dark. Nothing awaited me. Everything seemed empty of meaning. I could remember nothing good in the past, only regrets and failure. I could see nothing good in the present and had nothing to hope for in the future. No compass. No center. When it was over and I emerged out of the depression, everything looked different. What I used to hold most important now seemed peripheral, and what I saw as peripheral now seemed most important. Money and work success fell away to the edges, while relationships and God wound up in the center. Almost magically, like it just happened.” After I spoke with him I wrote a slew of thoughts down in my journal. Here’s a few:
Hope is certitude that the future holds good in store. Theological hope is the certitude of faith that the absolute future of the Kingdom holds imperishable good in store for those who love the God of Jesus Christ. Joy is the delight that springs from that certitude. Hopelessness is not an absence of hope, but attachment to a form of hope that is lost; one that lacks enduring substance. I think here of Hebrews 11:1’s “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Substance = Hypostasis in Greek, referring to faith’s object, God, who is “hypostatic” = substantial, stable, real, unshakable, enduring. Place to set your anchor, center your identity, plant your hope. We have many, many hopes — thousands! — some proximate and some remote; most trivial and some ultimate. Where are my anchors set? Really? If you wish to discover which hopes truly define you, see what stands firm in adversity. When you lose everything, what’s left? Anything? Substantial hope thrives in adversity just as faith thrives in the dark. St Therese: When everything in you and outside you rages against your faith and still you make a raw act of will — I believe! — then faith has begun. Begun! My grandfather used to say to me, “You can’t really call it faith when you still have other reasons to trust.” When everything falls apart, faith begins. You cry: “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Only now you can say: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” When you cry our in distress from the guts, then you know you really believe someone is listening. Hardship alone exposes and tests the structure of our inner hierarchy of hopes: which hopes define me, which don’t. My spiritual director said to me once when I complained, “Why is this happening? Why is it so hard?” — “One day you tell me you begged God for more trust, next time you tell me He gave you a chance to actually trust and then what do you do? Complain! What do you want?” I said, “I guess just trust and not a reason to trust.” We laughed. Sometimes hopelessness is good because it exposes the sandy securities we’ve built on and leads us down into the bedrock. Trust is the hardest virtue to succumb to, but is also the most necessary. Without trust no one would dare to hope. Babies stop crying when they cease to believe anyone will answer. When one cries out to God from the pit, decrying His absence, one has tasted a new and more profound mode of the divine presence: God’s presence under the from of aching yearning. Veni! Veni! O Come! O Come! Yearning stretches your capacity for God and so also your capacity to give away what you receive. Those who suffer the darkness are alone able bring hope into the caverns where those who live in darkness dwell. Or maybe it grants God permission to do radical surgery and refashion my foundations; reset my anchors. In the transition it seems I almost lose who I am; but what I lose are illusions and what I gain is…Matthew 6:33. Ave crux spes unica, “Hail the cross, only hope.”
Give them God
Excerpt from a note left for me by the Missionary of Charity who was responsible for training me to serve in their hospice for the homeless:
“Most of the people who come here have never been told or treated like they have God-given dignity, have been made to feel they are a burden to society. They believe they are not needed or are better off dead. And that’s made most of them very hard. That’s your mission here: to treat them with great reverence and love even if they don’t reciprocate. To communicate to them that the way God sees things, His world without them would be impoverished. See in them the face of Jesus in distressing disguise thirsting for love from the cross of suffering. When you love them, you love God; and when you love them you allow Jesus to love them through you – because where there is love, God is present.”
Mary Did You Know?
I read an article recently by a Catholic apologist who slammed the song, Mary Did You Know?, for what he considered a rejection of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the line: “…this child that you delivered will soon deliver you.” As I love that song, and find its lyrics theologically rich among so many impoverished Christmas songs, I was moved to respond to his argument. Here’s what I wrote him (edited some for this context, in purple):
I just wanted to comment briefly on your article that offers a critique of Mary Did You Know? I write with all due respect…
While I certainly agree with you that the song was likely written with a Protestant understanding of soteriology [theology of salvation] vis-a-vis Mary, in view of trying to build on the good that this song has done for so many people, it seems that trying to re-interpret the song’s lyrics in a Catholic way is a more helpful approach; using it as a catechetical moment and not simply as an easy apologetics slam dunk. I’d say:
“Mary did need a Savior, as her Magnificat says so beautifully sings (Luke 1:47), and as Pius IX said clearly in his proclamation of the dogma in 1854: “[the Virgin Mary,] in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin…” Preservation is a redemptive act. As Catholics we confess that the saving act of Jesus on the Cross and in the Resurrection redeemed Mary preveniently, preventing sin from defining her being. But she is not the Great Exception — God created an anomolous human being without sin — but the Great Exemplar, as God redeemed her from sin out of the superabundance of saving grace wrought by her as-yet unconceived Son. How wonderfully the song, Mary Did You Know?, places before us the paradoxical beauty and mystery of time-transcending divine Providence that redeemed back into history and forward to time’s end! Mary was indeed delivered from sin by her Son, in a supremely radical and singular way. She was saved, by a sort-of proto baptism, to the deepest roots of her being, as a sign that we, too, are called to be redeemed to the core of our being as we pass into the new creation, of which “Mary the Dawn” is the first herald and fruit. So the child she delivered would soon, in time, deliver her preveniently…and she was permitted to witness the very events — His Pasch! — that made her who she was: “I am the Immaculate Conception,” as she said to Bernadette at Lourdes. Wow […leaving rest out]
I have found over the years in my catechetical work in explaining the song in this way that people find it even more powerful, and are able to see better the difference between Catholics and non-Catholics in a more positive way, i.e. that Catholics and Protestants have a common understanding of Jesus’ universal work of salvation that applies to all humanity, Mary included. Yes, we have a different application of that understanding, but we must be clear that we all confess, with Mary, that God is her Savior. How good that this song’s text allows us to taste of the many sweet paradoxes that animate and enflame our mind-bending faith!
May the Immaculate Virgin intercede for us,
the first and splendid fruit of the Paschal victory,
the luminous dawn of the new heavens and new earth,
the happy harbor of our earthly pilgrimage. – Pope Francis
“When you are about to pray to our Lady the Holy Virgin, be firmly assured, before praying, that you will not depart from her without having received mercy. To think thus and to have confidence in her is meet and right. She is the All-Merciful Mother of the All-Merciful God, the Word, and her mercies, incalculably great and innumerable, have been declared from all ages by all Christian Churches; she is, indeed, an abyss of mercies and bounties.” — St. John of Kronstadt
St John of the Cross and self love
Pope Francis cautioned that the biggest enemy of mercy is “self-love,” which in the world is manifested in the exclusive pursuit of one’s own interests, in the search of hedonistic pleasures and honors, as well as the greedy desire to accumulate wealth. — National Catholic Registrar
St. John of the Cross agrees, and teaches that the greatest work of Divine mercy in us God’s work of overcoming our distorted “self-love” so that we might become capable of the selfless love that is the origin of mercy. Mercy, remember, is loving and seeking the well-being of difficult, needy, irritating, unattractive, unpleasant, smelly, nasty, unworthy others unto discomfort and self-renunciation. By self-love, neither John nor Pope Francis mean to disparage that healthy love for self that reverences all that is good in us and appropriately cares for our genuine well-being (cf Ephesians 5:29). Rather, both are disparaging that self-absorbed inward turning that thwarts the authentic good found in hard virtues, resists God’s holy will and prevents us from loving with the love of Jesus Crucified.
In his treatise Dark Night, John begins his discussion of the purgative phases of spiritual growth by using the Seven Capital Sins to analyze the extent to which the incurved ego remains alive and well in those who have made significant progress in prayer, have tasted of remarkable graces, but have not yet gone through the more mature developments in the spiritual life that require God to expose and purify their well-disguised spiritual narcissism. As a Carmelite priest I know says it: “What St. John calls beginners are those who won’t let God pluck out the spiritual lollypop He once placed in their mouth when they were small children. God gives us spiritual sweets when we are young to get out attention, but removes them when it’s time for stronger nourishment. Beginners at the threshold of deeper stages of growth tend to fight God’s invitation to maturity kicking and screaming…”
Here’s a section where St. John describes the inner dynamics of Sloth in the spiritual beginner, and then refers to the “dark night” that God eventually leads them into in order to dismantle the machinery of self-absorption. These dark nights include both interior trials (like dryness in prayer) and exterior trials (like life circumstances not going “my way”) that strip away the “props” that previously supported the soul’s narcissism. If we surrender to God in prayer throughout, John says, more profound love, trust, patience, kindness, mercy will begin to arise. Note in his description the dynamics of “self love” that still drive the slothful person’s spiritual life:
Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.
Beginners also become bored when told to do something unpleasant. Because they look for spiritual gratifications and delights, they are extremely lax in the fortitude and labor perfection demands. Like those who are reared in luxury, they run sadly from everything rough, and they are scandalized by the cross, in which spiritual delights are found. And in the more spiritual exercises their boredom is greater. Since they expect to go about in spiritual matters according to the whims and satisfactions of their own will, entering by the narrow way of life, about which Christ speaks, is saddening and repugnant to them.
It is enough to have referred to the many imperfections of those who live in this beginner’s state to see their need for God to put them into the state of proficients. He does this by introducing them into the dark night, of which we will now speak. There, through pure dryness and interior darkness, he weans them from the breasts of these gratifications and delights, takes away all these trivialities and childish ways, and makes them acquire the virtues by very different means. No matter how earnestly beginners in all their actions and passions practice the mortification of self, they will never be able to do so entirely — far from it — until God accomplishes it in them passively by means of the purgation of this night.
Blessed are the Down
I had a conversation with someone a short time ago about their Down Syndrome son. They live in a large city in the U.S. and they shared with me the difficulty they have had finding assistance in the public school system for children with Down Syndrome. While there are many offerings for children with Autism, which is fantastic, there’s almost nothing for their son. They puzzled for a long time. After some exploring, they found a pediatrician who specialized in working with disabled children. The doctor said very bluntly to them: “Frankly, it’s because most Down Syndrome children never see the light of day.” He meant, most are aborted after being discovered in prenatal testing. The father said to me: “I felt nauseous when I heard this. I thought of my son, what a beautiful gift he is. How helpless he is. And how his challenges have taught my wife and me the meaning of sacrificial love. The beauty of special needs children.”
Another person I know, who has a 33 year old Down Syndrome son with some accompanying profound intellectual disabilities, said: “How many people can say they have a canonizable saint living in their family? And every family blessed with a disabled child has the greatest vocation of all: to become saints by welcoming one with love.”
Those are the seeds of a culture of mercy. May Christians plant them in superabundance this Jubilee year!
Amor saca amor, “Love begets love.” — St. Teresa of Jesus
Year of Mercy “icon”:
My Poem to Mary
O new Miriam,
conceived on the east bank,
on the far side of rescue;
conceived at dawn
past a long night
beyond a once-parted sea —
You, our sister, are the thanksgiving hymn
of a redeemed, renewed humanity.
O magnify our warrior God,
Yah, from whom waters flood;
waters mixed with crimson blood
and splintered wood
putting all death to death
while making bitter waters sweet.
O new Miriam,
Orient of Hope,
sing for us your song
before the Son,
and walk with us
from the night of Egypt
into the Dawn that rises in the east.
Tear in My Heart
This is an email I sent a friend a while ago. Off on a business trip so won’t sneak any more in for a while…
You asked me yesterday about my relationship with Patti, and how she and I have been able to connect intellectually, with depth, etc., because you really want that with a future wife. I gave that thought. It’s a remarkable question.
I’d say the union of minds in marriage really at heart is not about the meeting of intellects per se, though there’s that in spades with Patti. She’s very smart and we love challenging each other with arguments and ideas. But what’s really the grace of graces in marriage for me is the capacity of marital love to tear you open, shatter your porcelain idols, break you down, wither your fears and open you up to receive in a free-fall act of trust what God has made of marriage: a union of two persons bound into one inseparable new reality. What reality? Biblical shorthand is, of course, “one flesh.” But “flesh” in the Bible captures the whole living human person, and “one” cuts into so many levels — levels you never knew existed until God-joining grace threatened your well-guarded solitary ego with a terrifying home invasion: holy communion with another. In that space-less distance from your spouse you begin to discover you’ve become/are becoming defined by another human being, down into the most intimate elements of your personality, soul, spirit, mind, heart, flesh. As my Pop said, “I don’t know where she begins and I end; or where she ends and I begin.”
There’s that, but even more, I discover what it means to say my wife is an image of God, Temple of the Spirit, daughter of God, grafted to Jesus as a member of His Body…and you suddenly see, if faith be your light, your one-ing with her has actually sunk you deeper into God. If you’re open to that, it’s absolutely wild, beyond what you could ever imagine union with God means. I once had my pure-spirit God safely buffered in my solitary pieties, controlled in my interior walls, indwelling on my terms…but in marriage I saw Him come forcefully through all the unpredictability of Patti. In marriage I discovered descending within myself in prayer at once led me deep into her Temple, where God awaited me; that my interiority required my entering also her interiority. In a thousand ways. That’s so clear, but as I write it is seems ridiculously obscure and unclear.
Another way to see this. “Intellectual connecting” with a spouse is not so much about a dialogue of ideas – though again it must be that — but a willingness to be (re)defined by another’s world: I by her and she by me. That’s the far more mysterious form of intellectual intimacy. My whole worldview, to its roots, is always changing with, through, in her. And a woman’s special gift is helping a man realize that he has a spiritual soul with unfathomable depths, and has inner passions, dreams, desires he is naturally terrified others will tread on…and often a man lives mostly outside of himself in the world of action and tends to evade interior exploration. But she will have no part of this!
This is stream of consciousness, like gibberish. Yuck. Let me resort to musical art.
There’s a music video by “Twenty One Pilots” that totally captures this sense for me. It’s an iconoclastic parable about (as I receive it) the (marital) love of a woman who takes a man to his own depths; a man who mistrusts the fallen world around him, and so forgets he has a living soul made for love; and made for the God who only permits himself to be encountered through the face (and fist!) of another (cf 1 John 4:20). The blonde woman in the video is the lead singer’s wife in real life, which makes it all even better. The brutal “fight” they engage in at the end is a metaphor that perfectly sums up marital love’s necessary violence (not physically abusive violence, obviously, but the tender violence of love God revealed in Christ) that permits the Kingdom of God to conquer my hardened, fearful, guarded heart (see Matt. 10:34; 11:12) through her love. She pierces his armored heart, cuts into it like a “butcher with a smile,” takes him higher than he ever imagined possible. The “tear in my heart” that Patti is has been the deepest impact our marital “embrace” has had on me, a wound that assaulted me awake and alive. Still does. This marital embrace far transcends the intimacy of sex, which is only a coda to the real cleaving union that intensifies over years and years of restless but faithful striving. Listen:
Carried, Carrying to God
Another easy-to-post secret journal entry:
I was speaking with a friend recently about the hardships of life. He asked me, “Why does it seem some people have the capacity to be good, love God, raise kids well, and then others – like me – are totally crappy at all that, and it all comes so hard, even though I have deep down the desire to be better? It seems God doesn’t deal us even hands. How is that fair?” I said, “I can’t answer that in a final way, but let’s just think about it.” We spoke about St. Therese’s image of humanity as a field of flowers, great and small; sturdy and fragile; fragrant and unscented; flawless and deformed – and we tried to imagine how all that unruly diversity makes for a beautiful whole, even if the individual parts seem woefully incomplete or defective on their own. Then I shared with him one of my favorite stories from the Gospel:
And they came, bringing to Jesus a paralytic, carried by four men. Being unable to get to him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying. And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” — Mark 2:3-5
I said to him:
I’ve always thought of this story as an image of the whole Body of Christ, made up of both carrying and carried humanity standing before Jesus. Some can carry, others can only surrender to being carried. All of us are both, sometimes more so than others. Jesus was Himself both the carrier and the carried. The perfection of love is only found in the whole, in communion, and never only in the isolated parts. Even in God it’s this way, among the divine Persons. There’s an exquisite “Trinitarian” painting I love of the Father holding the corpse of His Son: God carrying, God carried. Jesus is God hemmed in, circumscribed, finite, dependent and weak – waiting for love to lift Him up. But carried not just by the Father, but by Simon of Cyrene, Mary or Joseph of Arimathea. A friend of mine, a wise woman, once told me: “We’re made in weakness that we might supply for each other.” I guess it’s why weakness is lionized in Christianity, and great power is found in total surrender to the Other. It takes humility to see and accept that. I’m fumbling here, but I think you get the point.
We were silent for a moment on the phone, but I had to go. He said, “Thanks for carrying me.” I said, “Ditto.”
Today in my not-posting post, I’ll paste a selection from my journal back in early 2012. Stream of consciousness:
I love the Thoreau quote that I think of, I’d say, at least twice a week. It captures my experience of people, of life, and the older I get the more I see its penetrating truth.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
Once I get beyond the first moments of superficiality in a conversation with someone, and set sail into their world with open ended questions, the quiet desperation begins to speak. A priest here in Des Moines said to me last week at lunch:
Hearing Confessions keeps me very aware that life is hard for people. And trying to be a good Catholic makes it harder. Once I started to hear Confessions after Ordination, my idea of what I should preach about totally changed. I went from lofty to realistic. I try to think from within the world of God’s people. I try to listen to God’s Word, preparing my homily, by listening to people close-up throughout the week. That’s Jesus-preaching, right? God only finished revealing Himself totally after He entered our world and lived our life with us. Then He was able to speak not just as the God of eternal bliss, but as the man of earthly sorrows.
When I’m at Mass, I sometimes look around and imagine what each person’s story might be — the stories of hopes, dreams, joys, successes as well as the stories of pain, loss, struggle, heartbreak, fear, sadness, estrangement, addiction, disappointment. I imagine these people somehow wonder, as they sit in the pews: what does God have to do with life outside this church? I know some of their stories, but most I don’t.
Last Sunday… The family in front of me, I know their struggle to make ends meet: Two small children, two jobs. The husband works 60 hours in a 6-day week as an EMT and goes to school at night trying to get certified as a paramedic. Comes home around 11:00 p.m. and gets up at 4:00 a.m. to do it all again. The wife is a nurse. To my right in the pew is a man I know who suffers from alcohol addiction. He hates it, but his friends are drinkers. He lives alone and is terribly lonely. A history of broken relationships, a family torn by division. He cares for his elderly mom, who worries about him. We spent some time together a little while ago and he showed me a crumpled prayer card he prays every day. A St. Jude novena. Across the aisle from me is a woman whose husband won’t go to church, and he makes it difficult at home for her trying to raise their children in the faith. She kneels in front of Our Lady’s statue after every Mass. I wonder what she says? About 5 pews behind me is a married woman tempted to infidelity, plagued by guilt and confusion. Way in the back near the south entrance to the church is a couple in their 60’s with their severely disabled son in his 20’s. He makes loud noises throughout Mass, and they seem embarrassed. One of the lectors suffers from bouts of severe depression, and the usher at the west entrance — always smiling — has a wife at home with advanced dementia. He invited my wife and I to visit her, and it was a beautiful sight to see how he spoke to her with such love. She seemed to not know who he was, but she was so sweet. Then coming in during the Gospel was a young mother of many, maybe too many to handle, she says on darker days. She’s a remarkable woman who bears a heavy load in life, and her husband is a bit, let’s say, in his own world. She frequently complains to God about why He gave her so many children. I wonder if I should tell her having babies isn’t just God’s doing.
The cantor sang the psalm verse: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.”
The woman in front of me was reading the bulletin during the psalm.
We were all kneeling together as the celebrant prayed the Roman Canon:
…we, your servants and your holy people,
offer to your glorious majesty
from the gifts that you have given us,
this pure victim,
this holy victim,
this spotless victim,
the holy Bread of eternal life
and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.
I thought: Who’s listening? Do they know this victimized God, the risen Jesus, has just devastated this creation by making it pass-over into the new creation in that bread and wine? That He is inviting them to heap on Him their burdens so He can devastate them as well — but so gently, like the dew fall — and make then new? Heap all our heavy burdens on Him so He can make them light? He’s spotless, yet was soiled. Holy, yet made sin. Pure, yet sullied. All “for us men and for our salvation…” Do they know that He treasures their unkempt offerings, gathered amid quiet desperation, as the most precious of gifts? Do they know that Jesus is inviting them to co-offer themselves with His broken Body and spilled Blood to the Father? Do they see the Liturgy as the fulcrum of life’s deepest meaning, where resignation becomes hope and desperation becomes prayer? That the God of the Mass is not ethereal but earthy, not saccharine but sacramental, not distant but dirty? Do they understand their holy Communion is with Jesus, God-with-us, and that He stoops down at every moment to save, redeem, heal, restore, strengthen, enlighten, purge, raise up and fill them with every good? That He loves them into existence afresh in every new moment and embraces the entirety of their life’s reality as His own? He wants everything.
Communion came and I thought: Absurd! God chose bodily ingestion as the way to effect supreme Communion with Him. What an unconditional and staggering affirmation of God’s desire to enter every messy detail of our bodily secretions and spiritual aspirations. I recall my dogmatics prof describing the Gnostic instinctual rejection of the Incarnation as the “theological yuck factor” — “For them, the idea that God assumed the basest bodily functions and raised them to divine dignity was disgusting.”
On the way out of Mass, a woman near me mentioned to someone with her: “I know, we have to go visit her now. But damn I hate going to that Godforsaken place. So depressing.”
I went to my car and drove away. What did we miss? Ite, missa est. Must have been reading the bulletin.
Mercy for Parents
As we approach the Jubilee of Mercy, I have been trying to jot down thoughts on mercy as they come to me. I will share one here I wrote down Sunday:
Insomnia seems to be a cross bound to parenthood. Worry about your children, their future, the past, your failures. Such dark things plague the night. A friend who suffers similar night terrors calls this not the “dark night” but the “black night” of the soul. She’s a mom of adult children and says she believes it’s vicarious suffering, redemptive blackness for them. Green Mile style. Hidden combat on their behalf … For me it’s mercy that saves me from sinking from darkness into despair. “Jesus, I trust in you” is, of course, the motto of mercy. As I am assailed by evils, the terrible sight of failure, the sting of regrets, chaotic fears — I place myself within the shore-less and fathomless sea of mercy. I thought, mercy is the healing balm that flows from love slain under the blows of evil. Last night I let go, succumbed to it, surrendered the blows to love. Flawless is not the point. At once, Psalm 91:7; Psalm 131:2; Habakkuk 3:17-19; Matthew 6:25-34; Romans 8:28, 38-39 in succession washed over me and all the darkness of my inner tomb was transubstantiated. Still dark, same sins and failures and regrets, just full of dark hope now. Paradox. Psalm 4:8 lulled me to sleep: “I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” The safety that nothing is lost in the Kingdom, even the dross becomes gold. As I drift off, the thousand holes torn in my soul spring water out onto the parched earth. I laughed with barren Sarah.
Fr. Jim Polich of the diocese of Des Moines Iowa died four years ago on this feast, shortly after midnight on the Solemnity of Christ the King. The evening before he died, my wife, a friend and I visited his bedside in the hospice. He had been unresponsive for 9 days. We spoke with him. I read aloud the passage from Luke’s Gospel he had written his dissertation on. Luke 5:1-11. My wife sang to him the spiritual song, Give Me Jesus. And then all three of us sang the Salve Regina. After all this, he let out a groaning sound that sounded intentional. My wife said, “It’s okay to go now, Father. You’ve served Jesus well. You can go to Him.” We all said, “We love you Fr. Jim.” We left in silence. Hours later, the servant-priest departed this life to meet the King. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord. May Fr. Jim rest in peace for all ages with the great High Priest.
Don’t You Worry Child
There was a venerable tradition in the middle ages of taking “courtly love songs,” popular romantic ballads, and allegorizing them into spiritual canticles that unfold with deep feeling the diverse exigencies of faith. Exactly as the biblical Song of Songs does. Being a theological nerd, I often pass contemporary music through that same filter spontaneously, sometimes to great personal effect. Last weekend, my wife and I were listening to a local band and dancing. My wife makes me love dancing, though no one can ever make me good at it. They started to play Swedish House Mafia’s, Don’t You Worry Child. As they sang the chorus, I experienced an overwhelming rush of visceral trust in God that, though all good things pass, they will be found again in the Kingdom. It’s been a profound grief in me of late as my children grow and prepare to leave home. That trust has remained.
So here’s the song if you care to hear it through my lens:
Mercy in a merciless world
The recent terrorist violence in Paris, like all tragic events, has provoked countless reactions and responses. Calls for a just war, ruthless retribution, eschewing fear, reinforcing mistrust, offering forgiveness. It’s all very complex. Those who hope to bring clarity with simple answers inevitably fail. Various words chosen in response reflect and create a very different realities, propose very different futures for humanity. That said, the Jubilee of Mercy is only weeks away. It proposes a single word of response that, for Christians, defines the adaquacy of all others. Mercy, fully revealed deep in the open side of a dead God, offers the world a revolutionary new logic for responding to all violence and evil; a theo-logic revealed by the One Word forever spoken by the eternal Father. Moses heard it spoken (Ex 34:6) as God’s very Name.
Mercy is who God is in the face of evil: Christ crucified.
I’ve been thinking of this at night when I can’t sleep. Quelle différence? What language do we Christians bring to this tragedy, what words do we speak that refuse to surrender to the logic of violence and open fresh vistas of hope? One Eucharistic Prayer says this:
For though the human race
is divided by dissension and discord,
yet we know that by testing us,
you change our hearts
to prepare them for reconciliation.
Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts
that enemies may speak to each other again,
adversaries may join hands,
and peoples seek to meet together.
By the working of your power
it comes about, O Lord,
that hatred is overcome by love,
revenge gives way to forgiveness,
and discord is changed to mutual respect.
Then my wife sent me a simple news story. No sophisticated analysis. A bit naive, really. A father and a son. Like the father in the movie Life is Beautiful, this father struggled to offer his son a protective language that proposed a response to evil; a language capable of helping a child face evil. This language is born in a world vastly other that the world inhabited by the terrorists. Yet it’s naive. But in some ways, it’s like the seemingly naive author of the book of Revelation, who proposes that the world’s injustices can be solved by worshiping God with prayer-laden incense (Rev. 8). This father speaks so simply of charity in the face of evil. Alluding to mercy. Just watch the boy’s face as he straddles these different worlds…