Pausing on Christ the King

Happy Vigil of the Feast of Jesus Christ the King of the Universe! On this feast I think of Canon 225 §2, which is set in the section of Canon Law dealing with the duties of the faithful:

According to each one’s own condition, they are also bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular functions.

…which then makes me think of Kenneth Himes’ assertion that “the sacred is the sacramental form of the secular, i.e., the sacred is the secular in its full depth.”

And where do we see the “sacred” most fully manifest in this life? The Eucharistic Liturgy, where we are apprenticed by Christ to become artisans (tektōn) of heaven on earth. Which makes the “Go, be sent!” at the end of the liturgy Christ’s co-mission that we, in fact, bring the secular to its full depth

See in the icon above the Template for this remarkable and risky mission.

I will pause from writing until December 11 so I can attend to the many present duties of life. May we all live our duties out in the spirit of Canon 225 §2.

Godspeed!

The Ministry of Silence, revisited

Today I wanted to revisit a post from several weeks ago, entitled “The Ministry of Silence” (here), where I talked about the desperate need, in this noise-saturated culture, for the Church to bring from her treasury the spiritual riches of silence that she has been entrusted with by God. Only in sacred silence can God be heard.

After that post, I received two remarkable things that have deepened my insight. The first was an email from a friend of this blog, Chandra, and the other was an email from a high school religion teacher.

The high school teacher sent me an excerpt from an essay one of her students wrote on her own faith journey. With that student’s permission, gratefully, I have posted a portion of her reflection above. I was blown away by the elegance of her writing and the depth of her unexpected experience. It reveals, in such a startling way, that the real depth of the human soul, open to God, is discovered in the surrender to stillness and silent solitude — to be alone with the Alone.

The email from Chandra deals with a unique and transformative ministry to the incarcerated, and refers to the sharing of a prayer form — Centering Prayer — that facilitates the cultivation of exterior and interior silence. Chandra said:

Thank you for this!  Providential timing (so often the case with your posts)…  I’ve got a new prayer this week, thanks to your post:  there is already an active “crazy lady” in my mind (or several), but I’m asking God to direct her wicked fierceness only and always in ways that protect and revere the life-giving Silence.

One other thought to share:  if any of your readers have an interest in finding ways to share this Silence with folks affected by incarceration, I’d love to have you put them in touch with me.  Not only do we now have an active Prison Outreach Service Team as part of Contemplative Outreach (supporting Centering Prayer practitioners who are currently or formerly incarcerated as well as volunteers who go inside), but there’s also an exciting new initiative just getting off the ground that is looking for ways to partner with that Team and other organizations to seek ways we might dismantle some of the barriers that make it hard to carry contemplative practices from inside the walls to outside.  As the title of Bo Lozoff’s book puts it, “We’re All Doing Time”… learning to freely choose/cultivate/protect Silence in the midst of all the internal and external noise is no small feat, particularly during a transition like that one.  

Guardians of the Silence unite!

Feel free to share my ministry email address:  freethroughcp@gmail.com

I am grateful to this high school student and to Chandra for sharing their own taste of the power of silence to unlock the mystery of God.

“If you are wise, you are wise for yourself” — Prov. 9:12

We often hear it asserted that most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility. — Bryan Magee

When employees would come to my grandfather to solve their crises at work, he was known to say, “Your bad planning is not my emergency.” That’s what he told me once when I was in a bad spot and went to him for advice. Lovingly, but firmly, he talked to me about the importance of taking responsibility for my life and actions. He counseled prudence in planning, gauging my limits better in taking on commitments, and in developing relationships. He said (as recorded in my June 1989 journal):

Lots of people I’ve known in my life, who are stretched thin by too much going on, are largely reaping the fruits of poor decisions. Haphazardly or poorly decided commitments. Poor time management. Little prioritizing in planning. We all make bad decisions, that’s life. The difference comes in what we do with our mistakes and failures. Do we recognize what we did wrong and what we can do better? Or do we simply retrench and try to gather support for our bad decisions?

When people who’ve made bad decisions come to me for sympathy, rather than advice, I’m sparing. But, if they’re open to it — and few are — I’m very generous in offering them a hard look at reality. Not with criticisms, but with hard questions for them to answer. Questions that help them assess how they got into their situation.

Look, this is how I have gotten through life myself. Thank God, I’ve had people who were willing to challenge me, helped me look hard reality in the face. That’s why I’m always quoting Socrates to you: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

We talked through my own decision-making that had backed me into a corner, and then he said:

When things go bad, don’t look for commiserators. Look for counselors who have wisdom and will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Don’t complain, blame others, or feel sorry for yourself. And for god’s sake, don’t just give up. Instead, always begin by assessing what you could have done differently, get advice and then take the advice. Or expect the same results. And don’t come crying back to me! Unless you’re looking for a mirror.

…always avoid passive statements. Instead, use active ones. Never say, “How did I find myself in this situation? How did this happen to me? Why does this always happen to me?” That’s victim language. Instead, ask “How might I have allowed this to happen? What did I miss? What needs to change? What can I do differently next time?” Again, reach out for help, not sympathy. Take advice, don’t ignore it. Then see how it works. Only then you can improve. Otherwise, like a dog that returns to its vomit, you’ll just repeat history.

Listen to the Unexpected

{I’ll post today and go back to every other day after}

Back in 1991, in a homily on (Mt. 15:21-28) the story of the pagan Canaanite woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter, while the disciples tried to get rid of her, a priest said something that stuck me hard. I wrote this in my journal:

[The priest] said the disciples were unable to understand why Jesus was wasting his time on this pagan nobody woman who was being a pest. Jesus sees all so differently. He showed them that God has a penchant for revealing himself most brightly through the lowly, plain, homely, poor, simple, outcast, irritating people and events of life, more than through the attractive, pleasant, wealthy, wise or learnèd folks whose words tickle our ears. He gave a host of biblical examples.

He said God uses that method to point out what is most important, to humble us and help us love better and exit our self-enclosed worlds — since the real wisdom only comes to us if we choose, often against our natural preferences, to be attentive to what gets overlooked or ignored by most. If we choose Christ-love.

Then he said this: “So I challenge you to understand that you will miss much of your calling in life if you don’t learn to see and hear God in un-obvious places. Always ask yourself at the end of every day: what was God showing me through that person or experience I’d rather not deal with or found utterly uninteresting? In that discerning attitude you’ll find the gold without alloy.”

And he added, “Even in the ‘bad homily,’ God is speaking his hidden eloquence. If you just tune out, you lose out.”

So interesting. As he made his final point about Mother Teresa’s method of seeking Jesus principally in ‘distressing disguises,’ he ended by quoting this selection from St . Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Be of the same mind,
having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
Do nothing from selfish ambition
or empty conceit,
but in humility
regard others as surpassing yourselves.
Let each of you focus not to your own interests
but on others’ interests.
Let the same mind be in you
that was in Christ Jesus.

“Why?” he said. “Because in that attitude you will be one with Jesus who ’emptied himself and took the form of a slave.’ Among the slaves, the unseen, in all their forms, there you will find God.”

“The stirring of the water” — John 5:4

If a man is called to be a street sweeper,
he should sweep streets
even as Michelangelo painted,
or Beethoven composed music,
or Shakespeare wrote poetry.
He should sweep streets so well
that all the hosts of heaven and earth
will pause to say,
‘Here lived a great street sweeper
who did his job well.’ – Martin Luther King, Jr.

My daughter and I had dinner together recently and had a fabulous conversation. Among other things, we discussed how to live in a way that makes all into an adventure. That was the theme, and it was fun. Her fear is of becoming like so many people she has seen who seem to settle in life for ‘meh,’ and become complainers who paint themselves as restless victims of everyone and everything gone wrong.

We talked about how faith in God plants within a person a strong internal center, opening out into a wide horizon. It also gives an enduring sense of hope-filled meaning, revealing a world pregnant with endless latent possibilities. No matter how seemingly insignificant or mundane any detail seems, for the person of faith infinity is everywhere upending boring.

We talked about the need for wonder, for a deep hunger for learning, as well as a readiness to risk new things and new relationships. I said too many people get lodged in the cul-de-sacs of chronic complaining, cynicism, pettiness, backbiting or gossip — all of which extinguish the spark burning in the soul, the élan vi​tal of a life worth living.

We talked about humility, gratitude and generosity as fuel for wonder, and the need to search out — and hang with — other wonderers. Yes, to love and pray for those oozing toxic, but avoid entanglement in their stale world of shallow waters.

I also shared with her my practice of silence over the years to stoke wonder. I said there’s an immense power in silence to awaken new and multi-dimensional perspectives on life. She was really intrigued by this, and we had fun exploring how that might work.

I told her this odd thing. Years ago, my therapist recommended that when I get into a stressed mindset (which teems with dark shadows), I should pull out of my routine and have a ‘good stare.’ She encouraged me to find something simple and beautiful to look at, to spend time with in ocular communion. But, she said emphatically, no digital junk food. A tree, flowers, a painting or statue, a photo of a loved one, the clouds, my fish tank, even a blank wall. Then, she said, choose a set amount of time and stick to it — e.g. 15 minutes. She gave me tips on fighting the temptation to quit it, and the benefits of remaining faithful to it.

I am telling you, it worked wonders.

One thing she mentioned, that I found so fascinating, was how staring can offer the brain opportunity to rest and refresh when it’s overtaxed. In that waking rest, she added, it can heal in important ways akin to sleep. “It’s very unfortunate staring gets such a bad rap in our culture — the space cadet criticism,” she said.

I eventually learned to think of this practice as kind of visio divina “divine looking,” and linked it with Aquinas’ definition of contemplation as a “simple gaze on truth.” The good stare becomes a contemplative gaze that allows the mind a quiet space to simplify, unify, defrag and re-center on the beautiful. For eyes of faith, the world is rife with divine glory, a fresh pathway back into a fuller life. Absurd! But, I’m sold on it.

+ + +

Okay, this reflection has completely unraveled and has nowhere left to go, so let me just end randomly.

When I was a child, I was obsessed with whirlpools that form when water drains — I could stare at them for crazy-long periods of time. They became springboards for pure imagination. You see, wonder had not yet been beaten out of me. And so whirlpools, which led my eyes from the shallows into unknown, twirling depths, gave me an inkling of imagination’s vast capacity. So when I came back to faith, it was never a big leap for my sight to be sacramentalized, to opening in my heart room for seeing God in all things.

I’m telling you, if I could be employed to clear drains and watch whirlpools, I would do it.

“For an angel went down at a certain time
into the pool and stirred up the water;
then whoever stepped in first,
after the stirring of the water,
was made well from whatever disease he had” — John 5:4

Yes, you are welcome to now look me up on the DSM.

Brief thoughts on Humility

If you are humble nothing will touch you,
neither praise nor disgrace,
because you know what you are.
If you are blamed you will not be discouraged.
If they call you a saint
you will not put yourself on a pedestal. – Mother Teresa

My spiritual director back in the early 90’s once said to me, “Humility is an elusive virtue. You can’t really perceive it. And if you claim it, you’ve lost it. It’s an embrace of the truth of things, including our nothingness, as we see we are absolutely dependent on God for existence itself.” He added, “But the real test of humility is found when people criticize you, don’t esteem you. That’s when you really see where you anchor is set. In God? In yourself? In others’ opinion of you? Your critics do you the greatest of favors, they expose the real location of your anchor. You’re a saint until you receive that snide remark. Then you see yourself in a new light, as others tear open the safe and imaginary world that your cocooned self has fabricated.”

I never liked him much.

Serenity in Reality

[From an email I sent a friend]

In God, though, nothing is lost,
and the substance of hope
lies in the knowledge that God has given
– and will give –
again.
― David Bentley Hart

There was an insight I received a number of years ago into a habitual sin of mine that I never could seem to weaken the grip of. Here’s what [this priest] said (with my emphases added):

You know, I am convinced, after seventy-two years of living, that so many of our sins and evasions of God’s will come out of a fear that reality itself is not enough. We feel we have to twist and bend reality, or run from it, to make it ‘enough’ for us.

By ‘reality’ I mean the world as it is, in hard tension with the world as God intended it to be. In creating the world with a real autonomy, and creating us with freedom, God made a space for the world to stray away. We live in that space always. It’s volatile.

So often we want to run from the tensions, the ambiguity, the incompleteness and just cut to the resolution — heaven, the perfect world, now. Which makes us escape into fantasies, into illusion, into our self-made resolution: sin.

But God always only deals with reality. With the world as it is. It is only there that he calls us onward to do his will, even as we are all hemmed in by innumerable limitations, irritations, imperfections. Ways we often would rather not be. He gives us grace and the moral law to guide our way through all this — and that law greatly limits our options for resolving the tensions and tragedies. And so we rebel, we run, we sin. We choose another way than his, and live out of a fear that, if we don’t act against God’s will, we won’t get what we REALLY want or need.

The prayer we anti-realists pray is: “God, it would be so much easier to love, forgive, be chaste, be generous, trust — to do your will — if it weren’t for…” Just fill in the blank with reality.

And so we fail to do his will, pardoning ourselves with rationalizations and excuses.

He introduced me that day to Wilfred Stinissen’s remarkable words:

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 to 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 prepare 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?

And he invited me to pray Reinhold Niebuhr’s often quoted words:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

This insight that evening was a golden key that unlocked the prison doors of fear that I could now see so clearly, doors that had long kept that sin raging within me. I could see the deep seated fear that reality and its confines was not enough. Or, more to the point, I was not enough. Never enough.

As I received sacramental absolution, I could viscerally feel Jesus take that sin away – the Lamb of God, who does that with all the sins of the world. And I could hear in its wake the words: “My beloved son. Go, and sin no more.”

Enough.

The Gift of Spiritual Directors

I am so grateful for the gift of spiritual directors in my life. I have had four in thirty-four years. Here are five things in particular I have benefitted from in that relationship since I began gong to spiritual direction in 1988.

  1. Helping me keep prayer at the center of my life. I believe this is the most important role of a spiritual director, as all else in the Christian life hinges on our daily fidelity to personal prayer. And there is so much in life that wars against this commitment, no matter how many years we have prayed. If you stop praying, the rest of Christian life unravels quickly.
  2. Allowing me a space for radical transparency. Not holding secrets in life, especially over things that stand as obstacles to me growing in love of God, neighbor and self, is imperative. Maybe even dire. My director once said to me, “The day you want to please me, make me think highly of you, or try to make me agree with you is the day we end this relationship.” Why? Because that will stand in the way of me and of him being radically honest.
  3. Helping me discern the voice of God. My directors have taught me so much about how to better hear God’s voice, and distinguish it from other voices. Their goal: to make me able to recognize, discern, accept and carry out God’s will. While they have challenged me in my decision making, sometimes hard, my directors have never told me what to do, made a choice or discerned for me. They have only challenged and empowered me to make good choices informed by faith and good judgment in conformity with my commitments and duties. And helped me identify my blind spots. When I hear people tell me that their directors told them what choices to make, manipulated or discerned for them their path ahead, or — worst of all to me — claimed to speak on behalf of God to them — “The Lord told me to tell you you should…” — I shudder.
  4. Helping me develop an integrated Christian character. All of the above three benefits my directors have offered me in many ways have this as the goal — helping me bring all aspects of my life into harmony with my catholic faith in Jesus Christ, to live a life of consistent and constant reform/growth into integrity. This is truly an ever-evolving project that always requires a fresh appraisal, new approaches with uniquely accentuated virtues (courage here, temperance there, prudence everywhere) that often are underattended.
  5. Keeping me accountable to commitments. In many ways this is the crown of the other four, as we need each other to remain accountable to our promises, commitments, obligations. When my director as a rule leads with the sentence, “So, how is your prayer life?” that lives with me the rest of the time. When I lose accountability, I become the master of rationalization and procrastination, which leads to disorienting moral and spiritual deracination. I easily and mostly imperceptibly lose my way.

And so I thank God endlessly for those (in my case) men who have served this role in my life, along with my wife, countless other friends, mentors and inspirations who have challenged me to become a man who is human in God’s image, i.e. Christ.

Eli Chaplet, rockin’ our world

I just wanted to share a little ‘testimony’.

My wife and I have been praying the Eli Chaplet (see here) together every evening for over a month for a special intention. We are doing this to help us be open to God’s guidance in some particular issues we have facing us.

Any sustained prayer for an intention is powerful, especially when you agree on that intention with someone else who prays with you. But in this case, I have to also say that these prayers in this Chaplet, because they are ripped from Scripture (and a Saint), and are so radically open-ended, have had immense power in expanding our horizons and challenging us to let go of things we did not even know we were holding onto.

I wanted to share the power of these “arrow prayers” for opening new pathways, for what it’s worth. If you are interested in buying an “Eli” prayer card – English and Spanish — click here. I don’t make money on it, but my dear friend Peter Bond graciously added it to his prayer card collection.

The words of this humble, lovely version of Tim Schoenbachler’s song, for me, communicate the heart of it all.

Ida

New Orleans watches visiting electrical repairmen with hope: 'They're a  blessing' | News | nola.com

[by request, a re-post from September of 2021]

From my journal on 9/10/21 after Ida hit on 8/29. Stream of consciousness.

+ + +

The top of the world’s right where you are. — Blake Shelton

In the wake of Hurricane Ida, these last two weeks have humbled me in so many ways.

Stripped away, laid bare, so many of my comfort-zone props shattered — a veritable idol collection, I now see. Who knew? Good grief.

Made me learn better how to graciously receive others’ undeserved generosity, hospitality and kindness.

Revealed some new depths in my own inner poverty, and not the good kind. Like a shaving of wood which is curled round its central emptiness.

Tested mightily my ability to think out of trust and not out of fear.

Conjured stale air from the dark and musty storehouses of anxiety that lurk deep within. Reminder: never take breathing for granted. Suffocation is hell.

Stretched parts of my soul I’d forgotten, maybe never knew existed.

Strained my ability to pray as I am accustomed, and so to pray at all.

Exposed the extent of my attachment to the luxuries of ‘first world’ comforts, reminding me of reality for most of the world’s inhabitants.

Rendered me painfully aware of how little I can do for so many suffering, whose sufferings are vastly greater than my own minor discomforts … God commanded me to do that little.

These last two weeks have dripped heavy with goodness amid misery.

God’s love is unrequitable, and that’s the (brutal) point. Equally true, paying it forward with thanksgiving confirmed in generosity is “right and just,” and that’s also the (brutal) point.

Patti saved me from me.

Marriage gushes with sacramental grace when I prioritize and lean into her. She makes this man “feel rich on minimum wage” — it became my odd theme song in our evacuation time. But when I fail to lean into her? All falls into ruin.

Marriage shatters your pretenses if you let it. No hiding from bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. “Adam, where are you?” I told her, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

Marital fidelity is the axis of existence, ever since Eden. Holds the world together in interwoven covenant bonds. It is tested as no other human bond, because it bears divine gravity — loathed by Evil.

My children rip fatherhood out of me, pour Fatherhood into me, unearthing innumerable pearls of great price.

Family in God, not the most important thing, the only thing. And so the hardest thing. All else, a distant second. My career, is as dust in the balance.

Texts, emails, phone calls from countless people, everywhere wanting to care, to help, to hear, to pray.

“Look for the helpers.” — Fred Rogers

All of the utility trucks from other states, restoring power. Countless laborers from all places pouring mercy’s balm into the devastation in this horrid heat.

Joy [a nurse] slept at the hospital to be fully available in the high demand.

These days, God sent into the church from the world countless emissaries. O church, be humbled, and be careful about speaking down about “the world” outside your walls. You may see yourself more “out there” than within.

I heard from a friend in Nebraska: “Stopped by a lemonade stand. There were probably 6 young girls, all very enthusiastic. ‘It’s $1, and all profits go to hurricane victims.’ I told them I’d pass along the news to you and your family.” Six mighty pillars of creation.

A pastor with health problems stayed in the rectory with no power in the heat to be accessible to his parishioners throughout. He gave his generator to a family who needed it. “I’m not gonna lie, it wasn’t easy. But all for the kingdom,” he said to us with a cheerful voice.

A friend had his roof torn off and lost decades worth of memorabilia he and his deceased wife had together collected. He said to us in a text, “It’s all lost. I cried it out and let go. I’ll start again.”

So much goodness, vastly more. Intimations of resurrection.