Crickets, Give Thanks and Praise!

Repost 2013

I am overwhelmed by an unusual sense of gratitude today, a strange thankfulness for a fact that I mostly overlook and take for granted: that creation exists at all. That I exist. I felt overwhelmed with appreciation that I, and all things, have received from our common Creator an irrevocable vocation: to be. As I thought of the phrase, “God has called all things into being,” I realized that simply existing gives me a rock-solid sense of meaning, of value, of purpose. Abiding in the divine gaze: “Very good!” (Genesis 1:31). Every other vocation builds on that one. Today, being super-sufficed to fill me with joy.

Because I agree with Hans Christian Andersen’s comment, “Where words fail, music speaks,” I would like to steal some music from creation to fittingly sing to God, sing a new song. Someone who knew I loved nature sent me a link to an article with an audio embedded in it. I found what I heard so astonishingly beautiful — sat and listened for almost an hour — that I just had to share it with you. The article says, “Composer Jim Wilson has recorded the sound of crickets and then slowed down the recording. The crickets sound like they are singing with an angelic chorus in perfect harmony. Though it sounds like human voices, everything you hear in the recording is the crickets themselves.”

Enjoy the Cricket Symphony:

And then pray the cosmic liturgy of creation those crickets join in on:

Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord
Praise and exalt Him above all forever
Angels of the Lord bless the Lord.
You heavens, bles the Lord
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord
All you hosts of the Lord, Bless the Lord
Sun and Moon, Bless the Lord
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.
Every shower and dew, bless the Lord.
All you winds, bless the Lord
Fire and Heat, bless the Lord

Cold and chill, bless the Lord
Dew and rain, bless the Lord
Frost and chill, bless the Lord
Ice and Snow, bless the Lord
Nights and days, bless the Lord
Light and darkness, bless the Lord
Lightings and clouds, bless the Lord

Let the earth bless the Lord
Praise and exalt Him above all forever.

Mountains and hills, bless the Lord
Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord
You sprints, bless the Lord
Seas and rivers, bless the Lord
You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord
All you birds of the air, bless the Lord.
All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord
You sons of men, bless the Lord.

O Israel, bless the Lord
Praise and exalt Him above all forever.

Priests of the Lord, bless the Lord
Servants of the Lord, bless the Lord
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord.
Holy men of humble heart, bless the Lord.
Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, bless the Lord.

Praise and exalt Him above all forever. — Daniel 3:57-88

“Only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6)

writingcave.com

Fr. Tom Hopko:

…So then, you have what I consider personally to be the most terrifying paragraph in the New Testament. These are the most scary and terrifying verses in the New Testament. This is what Jesus says, and this is how the Sermon ends. He says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father, who is in Heaven. On that day many will come, and they will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name? Did we not do many mighty works in your name?”

Three times, it says, “In your name.” And within the name, one is “prophecy,” which means to teach the truth of God. One is “casting out demons,” which means to heal the diseases and madness of the world. And the other is “mighty acts,” or miracles. And just for fun, let’s add, “Did we not serve the Divine Liturgy in your name? Didn’t we go to church in your name? Didn’t we organize the conference in your name? Didn’t we go to Guatemala in your name?”

Jesus continues, “And then I will declare to them, I never knew you. Depart from me you evildoers.” Could you imagine that? You say to the Lord, “I prophesied in your name. I did miracles in your name. I did healings in your name. I did all these things in your name my whole life. I walked around in a dress, with a cross on it, in your name.” And He says, “Depart from me you evildoer. I did not know you.”

What does that mean? What it means is that you can do all these things and even do them in the name of Christ, but you did not do them according to the law of God, which is love and mercy and forgiveness without vanity or conceit.

Now He adds, “…only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven,” and here, all the Holy Fathers will unanimously say that ascetical actions in themselves are not necessarily the will of God in Heaven. Miracles and prophecy and teaching and casting out demons are not necessarily the will of God in Heaven. Don’t ever think just because someone works signs and wonders means they’re the real deal. The real deal miracle worker is only the one who loves enemies, is humble and doesn’t feed on attention. Miracles and mystical flights and ascetical feats can cover up brilliantly the fact that we’re totally full of ourselves. As Fr. Schmemann liked to say, all too often mysticism becomes nothing but mist, I, and schism.

Jesus is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount: loving, forgiving, being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for justice, being merciful and pure in heart, peacemaking, being persecuted for doing right and not for being arrogant; and doing all I do, as much as possible, hidden in secret — that is the will of God in Heaven. And that alone saves a person.

So the Holy Fathers say that no one was ever saved for not eating meat. The devils never eat. No one was ever saved for sleeping on the ground or giving up sleep. The demons never sleep. And no one was ever saved by doing a miracle or giving a talk. You’re only saved when you do the will of God, which is to love with the love with which God has loved us in Christ. St. Thérèse, a Roman Catholic saint, said it perfectly: “It is only love that makes us acceptable to God.” So it’s love, and it’s also humility. Real humility. Humility ready to confess our total failure to love this way. Only then we can receive the mercy of God. So we’re saved by love and by humility. Real humility that’s brutally honest before God, before others and ourselves. God’s mercy can only teach us to love if we’re humble, able to be absolutely honest like the Publican in the synagogue: “Have mercy on me a sinner!”

Dostoevsky really got this kind of humilty and mercy. In Crime and Punishment, he puts these words in the mouth of the drunk, Marmaladov, whose daughter, Sonya, becomes a prostitute to feed his family that’s starving because he’s a drunk. The father’s talking about the eternal fate of his messed up family. He’s willing to see things as they really are. No self-delusion here. I’ll read it to you so you can feel its full power.

God will come in that day and He will ask: “Where is the daughter who gave herself for her angry, consumptive stepmother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?” And He will say, “Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once. Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee, for thou hast loved much.” And He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive, I know it… I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say, “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And we shall come forth without shame and shall stand before Him, and He will say unto us, “Ye are swine made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!” And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, “O Lord, why dost thou receive these men?” And He will say, “This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him, and we shall weep, and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!

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Katrina

worldnow.com

People don’t live in New Orleans because it is easy. They live here because they are incapable of living anywhere else in the just same way. — Ian McNulty

One of the most extraordinary things I have discovered about New Orleans (and here I include the surrounding region of SE Louisiana) is its firm hold on the people who call it home. In general, there is a profound devotion and love among residents for this city. While I know that love for your city or town is not unusual, there is something here about people’s love and devotion that I find singularly unique in my (admittedly) limited experience. How can I say it? Maybe I can say that people have very deep roots here, and that they really identify with New Orleans’ colorful culture in a way I am not accustomed. One lifelong resident said to me that living in New Orleans is like having an addiction. But, he added, unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, you feel freest and most yourself when you finally succumb to its allure. It’s all been a beautiful thing to experience for us, and my wife and I feel very committed to retiring here. Unless they exile me for my Yankee leanings.

But Katrina really is the word I would use to most forcefully describe the uniqueness of my experience of the Big Easy. There’s hardly a day that’s passed these three years my family and I have lived here when I don’t hear the word “Katrina” spoken by someone. Seriously. To be a New Orleanean, I have discovered, is to be forever marked by Katrina. Like 9/11 for New Yorkers. But to be a New Orleanean is also to be fiercely committed to keeping this city alive, with its rich cultural heritage, tight network of families and very old faith. When we first moved here people in our neighborhood were anxious to convince us that the New Orleans projected by the media to the world after Katrina was not their New Orleans. Their New Orleans was about people helping people, about the will to survive and go on, about hard work and a passion to rebuild. The Papal Nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò said it well in his message to New Orleans sent earlier this month: “While Hurricane Katrina took away your homes, churches, public buildings, and even the lives of your loved ones, she did not take away your determination to rebuild. Such perseverance is an expression of your faith in God.”

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow on the Gulf Coast, I asked a friend, colleague and native New Orleanean, Mrs. Susie Veters, to share her own experience of living through those days. She, her husband and family represent for my wife and I what we love most about New Orleans: family, faith, joy and friendship. I am grateful she said yes to my request…

Susie

Our Lakeview home one week after Katrina

I was recently asked to write a reflection on how Katrina changed my world.  Before I jump into that, I need to preface my remarks with a few thoughts about the events.  Before Katrina, my husband and I were never “evacuators.”  We “hunkered down” (a favorite New Orleanian phrase), we bought supplies, we filled our bath tubs with water (in case the City water supplies failed), we bought gas for our generator, and more importantly called around to see who else was silly enough to stay for the hurricane so that we could decide who would have the hurricane party when the weather died down.  What was the worst thing that could happen – loss of electricity and a couple of days of no school and work?!   Well, luckily we knew better than to stay for Katrina.  We watched Katrina from a friend’s deer camp in Alabama.  We watched as reports of flooding rolled in, as thousands of our citizens remained trapped on roof tops and interstate overpasses and, literally, as our city burned.  It was an out of body experience that one cannot really describe.  When we finally heard that our neighborhood was one of the hardest hit, I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me.  I was sure my world as I knew it was over.  We packed our car with the little clothes we brought and headed to Houston to find a new home and a school for our children.  We felt like the Beverly Hillbillies (a reference that only us baby boomers will get!)  Without a doubt the thing I mourned most during the days, weeks and months that followed was not my possessions, but the thought that the awesome parish community we lived in, St. Dominic’s, was lost.  Luckily that was not the case.  We came back.  We rebuilt our house. We did what we could to get our parish up and running.  I came to realize that the quality of life is not measured by the stuff we possess but by the relationships that give us life.  I also learned that a community of faith is the rock upon which everything else is built.  Once St. Dominic was up and running I believed that things would be ok.   I cannot describe the joy the first time our parish came together to celebrate Mass.  It was at that moment that I knew that what we lost was not the issue; instead it was what we still had that mattered most. And so how did Katrina change my world? It made me come to a much deeper appreciation of my faith, my family, and my friends.  It was a 3D experience of how much we rely on each other.  It made me appreciate the kindness of strangers and enkindled in me a need to give back in a way I had not previously experienced.  I don’t regret Katrina for one moment.  She gave us much more than she took!

The Gospel of Math

Repost 2014 in honor of today’s feast

I used to have a t-shirt back in college that had this on the back:

I wish I had it again.

A physics professor I had in college once said, “If there is a God, his native language is math.” Adam Drozdek, in his Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor, gave me my first deeper initiation into the frightening idea. He says:

To summarize, there are three important aspects of Augustine’s discussion of the problem of infinity. First, infinity is an inborn concept which enables any knowledge. Second, infinity can be found in the purest form in mathematics, and thus mathematics is the best tool of acquiring knowledge about God. Third, God is neither finite nor infinite and his greatness surpasses even the infinite. Augustine is original in combining these three aspects in his philosophy; some of them can be found in other philosophers and theologians, but also in mathematicians.

God’s infinity is of a higher magnitude, an infinity of different kind. God is able to comprehend [the sequence of all] infinities, as he is above infinity, he is the Absolute. His infinity is above all possible temporal (and spatial) infinity; it is an infinity of infinities, whose magnitude can be dimly imagined by means of mathematical infinity. It is an infinity of infinities also in that, as St. Augustine said in City of God, “all infinity is in some ineffable way made finite to God,” since no infinity is incomprehensible to God — he can count numbers without succession of thought. God is even able to count without numbers, which assumes that there is no number equal to the quantity of all numbers, that is, no number, to use modern parlance, expressing cardinality of integers (which is aleph zero). This is no hindrance to God who is able to see the entire sequence of numbers without looking at these numbers one by one. Infinity of these numbers can be grasped in one act of comprehension.

…The concept of infinity directs our eyes toward God, and in a sense the presence of infinity in us can be considered a proof of God’s existence: we, the finite and mutable beings, could not engender that concept ; who else could do it if not God? Also, infinity in us can be appreciated and known best through mathematics, through analysis of numbers. In that sense the existence of numbers can be considered a more fundamental proof of God than cosmological argument – since the world would not exist without numbers – and teleological argument – since the design and order in the world can be recognized only through numbers, since order and design are due only to numbers. Therefore, although ontological proof, announced already in Psalm 19:1 that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” has always been considered most important, Augustine could consider mathematical proof as the most fundamental: God exists since the number and infinity exist in our mind.

As a friend of mine aptly phrases it, reading Drozdek makes me feel like a dog watching TV: engrossed but uncomprehending.

With an eye to inciting some additional wonder, let me share two videos about math related to theological thinking. The first, about 4 minutes long, posits that the mind of God is mathematically, and so musically, inclined. The second, which my oldest son sent me, is about 9 minutes long and offers a persuasive approach to “falling in love with math.” I could never imagine such a thing. After watching it, I was convinced also that the speaker held a golden key to an effective catechesis seeking to awaken love in a people grown bored with (what they think is) Christianity. In St. Augustine’s Catholicism, faith-thinking is also good thinking that helps us navigate a world rife with fallacious reasonings. Faith opens to us an intelligible world in which faith and reason beat their wings in harmony, allowing our minds to soar in contemplating a world stamped by the mind of God, the divine Logos.

In the beginning was the Word [ho Logos],
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made. — John 1:1-3

My son commented on this last video, “This is totally how the Church should approach its messaging.” Yes.

One:

Two:

“I saw something like the appearance of fire and brilliant light surrounding Him” (Ezekiel 1:27)

The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story
and night unto night makes known the message. — Psalm 19:2-3

In late July we had a violent evening thunderstorm in Metairie that afterward resolved into a blaze of golden light. Breathtaking! I took this photo out of my car window, though my children strongly protested someone might spy my flip phone as I stopped the car, reached out of the window and snapped the shot.

Allow your imagination to see behind me a departing thunderstorm to the east, casting its billowing doom into a pitch-black sky. I pulled the car over to the side of the road so we could take in this dramatic schism in the heavens, this primordial war between light and darkness. To the west the sun serenely claimed its golden triumph, while to the east the darkness rumbled in fierce anger, shooting forth darting streaks of piercing light. The contrast between them was stunning. Against the threats of an angry night, the sun dusted the fleeing clouds with gentle protests of hope. In the end, though the sun indeed fell below the western horizon, it was the terrible storm itself that perished, while the sun, still alive beneath the earth, patiently awaited the coming of dawn in the east.

I later thought of that line in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud hung over the spot of its going … and darkness crept over the land from the east.

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Beginners, all of us

i.telegraph.co.uk

I’d like to share a story I heard today from a visiting priest, who was in town giving an evening of reflection at the seminary. We had a chance to sit and visit for about 15 minutes.

He’s in his 70’s, and he said he gives a lot of retreats to nuns, “most of them older than me.” Ha! Anyway, he said that one time when he was giving a retreat at a convent, he met a nun who was in her 90’s. She enthusiastically thanked him for the retreat.  She was a very joyful woman. He said to her, “Sister, did you really find the retreat helpful?” She said, “Yes, Father, I did.” He then said to her, “At this point in your life, how would you describe your spiritual state?” She said, “Father, I’m just beginning.”

I joked that her astonishing admission was a good reason for me to despair. But, as he said to me, that reaction misses the mark of what the spiritual life is really all about. I wrote thoughts on this in my journal during lunch…

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At the heart of a Christian and Jew’s spiritual life is the conviction that, in the final analysis, I am not in control. God is. The spiritual life is primarily an expression of the work of grace, is a work of divine initiative and of our co-operating with God. God operates, I co-. God speaks, I echo. God labors, I collaborate. The Virgin Mary’s “let it be done to me” is the primal posture of the saint. Abandonment, in trust, to divine providence is the fundamental Christian strategy for “getting control of one’s life.” Think of it, our model prayer — the Our Father — is simply a series of seven free consents to God’s action: (1) sanctify your name; (2) let your kingdom come; (3) let your will be done; (4) give us; (5) forgive us; (6) lead us; (7) deliver us. Like Abraham leading his only son up the mountain, we realize that, in the end, nothing in heaven or on earth is, in any absolute sense, mine. Everything is gift given and offering returned. We are stewards. God sustains me in existence at every nanosecond, so not even my existence is my possession. Suicide is theft. Existence is a gift I receive and, as with all gifts given by God, it is given in service to my vocation/mission in life to glorify God’s Name and work for the salvation of all (which is really saying the same thing as God’s glory is “man fully alive”).

Those who advance in the spiritual life begin to realize quickly that, because of this truth of “all is gift,” every day is a fresh beginning, a new genesis, a day unlike all previous days and a day never to repeated again. Every “today” is an epiphany of God’s freedom to give and act, and an opportunity for our free response, to receive and co-act. In this theological sense, every moment of existence is an experience of radical novelty. Though it is of course true that there are evident and discernible patterns that mark God’s manner of dealing with us (God’s not chaotic), God is, as Pope Francis said so well, a “God of surprises.” And faith is the only proper and proportionate posture toward a surprising, untamed, un-caged, uncircumscribed God. Faith reminds us that we are always beginners, always learning God anew, always begging paupers, and the faithful are happy (makarios!) for it being this way.

The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote, “To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it.” He was referring to the desire we have in our spiritual lives to seize control of God, to demand control over our spiritual progress, over the oscillations of consolation and desolation, over the speed with which God eradicates our sins. St. John of the Cross, referring to those whom God has purified, through faith, of their impatient need to control God’s work in them, says:

Softened and humbled by spiritual dryness and hardships and by other temptations and trials in which God exercises the soul in the course of this night, individuals become meek toward God and themselves and also toward their neighbor. As a result they no longer become impatiently angry with themselves and their faults or with their neighbor’s; neither are they displeased or disrespectfully querulous with God for not making them perfect quickly.

The purified all know they are beginners, and rejoice in their permanent novitiate.

A seminarian in Omaha this summer shared a phenomenal insight I’ll end with, as it wonderfully reinforces my point.

One of the most important graces I received this summer here is a transformation in my prayer life. Prayer for me prior to this summer was like visiting a zoo. I would visit the Trinity and the saints, and look at them and admire them, maybe even speak to them, but my prayer was safe because they were all locked up. I had no fear that they might disturb my life much, and I felt I had total control over what they did or did not do. But this summer I opened the cages, and they all ran out, and now the Lion has moved into my home. Everything changed. Thanks be to God.

Lord, grant me the grace to say the same. Amen.

Profligate Man

Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. — Annie Dillard

When I read this line in Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought at once of a friend whom I admired greatly during the years I knew him when we lived near each other. There are three things about him that stand, for me, as a constant call to higher things. I aspire to all three of them, even if I seem to mostly salute them from afar (cf Hebrews 11:13).

  1. He lives in the moment, all the time. When I’m with him, I suddenly feel unchained from preoccupations with times beyond the present. Regrets and preoccupations, worries and fantasies seem to vanish when we hang out together, as he is always so present to the here and now, drinking in our friendship, erupting with sudden joys over an unexpected flower, throwing himself into the weary world of a convenience store cashier who seemed (to him) to need a word of encouragement — and leaving her with a smile. His attention to the present seems to me almost naive, impossible, especially as he himself lives a life bound up in a thousand cares. And he’s old enough to know better. Yet…
  2. He is unexpectedly generous. We were walking together once after buying sandwiches, looking for an open park bench to sit on. He saw a homeless man asleep on a bench, went over to him, awakened him and asked him if he was hungry. He was. He gave the drowsy man half of his sandwich and asked if we could sit and have lunch with him. We did. He saw the man was hungry for communion. It was extraordinary. The “homeless man” was actually Stephen, and we believed only half of what he said. But it didn’t matter. My reckless friend had uncovered a hidden communion by breaking the hard crust of indifference. Of my indifference, as he was himself obviously oblivious to indifference. I recognized Him in the breaking of this bread, discovered only in that fleeting moment.
  3. His love for God is disarmingly free. When he speaks of God, there’s no plastic or oppressive piety or Pollyanna approaches to God’s “place” in the world. He weaves his faith into everything, he loves Jesus, but not simply as another “topic” to wax on about. For him God is not this or that, here or there. Faith for him is not so much what is seen, faith is vision itself, how he sees the world. To offer an image my colleague Dr. Chris Baglow taught me, I’d say my friend engages God not as one would the Sun, seeking to locate by fixed coordinates a blinding orb somewhere high in the skies. Rather, for him God is the unseen and generous light that is known in the event of its selfless act of transforming darkness, bringing the world “to light” for the sighted, making all things intelligible, revealing all things beautiful, dispelling for the willing all nights, calling forth the dawn everywhere and always and in all things.

How has such a man been fashioned? God alone knows. But once when we were together, I asked him, “What gave you your view of things?” He thought for a moment, and then said: “Though I suffered lots in childhood with a chaotic family, I had a baby sister I was forced to care for a lot of the time. She eventually drew me out of myself, but I’ll tell you it must have been grace that took me from resentment to something else. And when you come out of yourself and get into another’s world you find everything looks totally different. The rest of my life just kinda flowed from caring for someone else. I think that the vocation of every baby conceived or born is to yank others out of their self-absorption and comfort. I guess I could say grace gave me my sister so I’d see love’s everything. If you get that, everything just looks different.”

St. Maximus the Confessor, come to my aid to worthily speak of this mystery:

The Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supraessential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things … He longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired…