To be freed

While diligence and industriousness are important virtues for any kind of work, they become vices when these habits serve as means to escape oneself
through excessive work, leading him or her to crowd out all other dimensions of life. Acedia [sloth] produces boredom not in work, but in everything else but work. — Michael Naughton

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a retreat on the importance of leisure. I focused on the importance of ensuring life is always marked by an ebb and flow between work and leisure, especially in a culture that equates productivity and worth, busyness and value, and reduces leisure to recovery from and for work.

Among the many definitions of leisure I proposed, I said leisure is a disposition of inner freedom (licere = “to be freed”) that makes one capable of receiving existence as a sheer gift and not as an earned reward. Engaging in leisure of this sort is a sign you have affirmed that being (“who I am”) precedes doing (“what I do”), and have ceased trying — at least for a time — to manipulate existence into being what you wish it to be, and not receiving it for what it is.

Leisurely activities, always carried out “without a why,” as ends-in-themselves, affirm what is most essential in life — beauty, truth, goodness, love, mystery. And they affirm relationships as primary, as the true ends never to be turned into mere means. As such, leisure requires time, patient waiting, silence, wonder and abundant love.

Leisure re-grounds our sense of worth and identity in the act of creation, in having been created by God from nothing as a gift freely given — our existence being a gift unsought, undeserved, unmerited, unearned.

We were not created to achieve some other end or goal, but simply for our own fulfillment (the achievement of which entails the fulfillment of all humanity and the whole of creation). “The glory of God is the living man.” God does not need us, but at every moment we exist because God wills us to exist. Wants us to exist. Period. Nothing else justifies our reason for being other than an infinite and eternally sustained act of gratuitous love emanating from the God whose existence is “without a why.”

Love is our origin, our end, our raison d’être.

Prayer in its deepest meaning is the act of freely submitting to God’s gaze of merciful love on the seventh day of creation. In prayer, we are willingly bathed in God’s willing Word: “Very good. Very beautiful” (Gen 1:31). And only those who consent in prayer to receive this gaze, even into their darkness, can choose to look out with this same gaze on all…

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.” — Luke 23:33-34

Worship is a confession of our gifted inalienable worth as we praise, bless, adore, glorify, and give thanks to the One “who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with thy kingdom which is to come.” Not because God needs such worship from groveling sycophants, but because worship rightly disposes us to receive all He has already given, from all eternity.

The most fruitful activity of man is to receive God.

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. – Psalm 127:2

In my talk, I said,

Amazing that God had to command the Sabbath, to command us to stop working. Command leisure. Sin makes us slaves to work, to busyness, to distraction, keeps us in the bondage of Egypt where we are not free to worship.

I’ve always thought how apropos it was that, on the gates of Auschwitz, the Nazis placed these words: Arbeit macht frei, “Work sets you free.”

If you feel worthless when you are not productive, busy or working;
or if, when you rest, you feel guilty,
as if you have not sufficiently justified your reason for existing as you rest;
or if you cannot endure praise for any sign of goodness or beauty in you,
but ever demur that you are unworthy of any praise;
or if, when you are not suffering in some way,
you feel you don’t deserve good or pleasure or joy for its own sake –
you need to sit at the feet of Queen Sabbath, who, as gift of God,
was sent to remind you of the words spoken at your conception:
“I love you: I want you to be.”

 

Rain down

This is the spring of life that waters the whole world,
Taking its origin from the Wounds of Christ.
Sinner, to be purified, go down into the holy water. — Inscription on the Lateran Baptistery

During the proclamation of the Gospel during yesterday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, for whatever reason I had a flash memory that dates back to the Fall of 1987. It’s very simple, so for what it’s worth here it is.

I had experienced a life-altering encounter with Christ in February of that year, and spent the subsequent months trying to figure out what on earth had happened to me and what to do with this whole new world that had opened up to me. It was thrilling and frightening all at once. The combination of the divine wildfire that was burning in me and the loss of a girlfriend, and several other friends who thought I’d gone mad, had caused me tremendous stress.

My flash memory was of me walking across the Florida State campus one hot afternoon right after I had gotten out of class. I remember I was praying to God with great frustration, and said something like this: “God, you’ve caused this mess. You have to help me get through all this. It’s just too much too fast!” I recall so vividly that right at that very moment a heavy afternoon shower — the kind that begins with giant drops — suddenly let loose and drenched both me and my backpack. I started laughing so hard I fell to the ground and shouted aloud, without a hint of self-consciousness, “Okay, enough! I get the point!”

Anyone looking at me certainly would have thought I was in the midst of a psychotic break.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I knew there was strange grace in that rain. Along with the unbridled freedom that came with this unexpected moment of totally letting go, a deep sense of God’s playfulness filled me. I sat still on the pavement until the rain ended, still laughing, and realized in those moments I felt freer than I ever had in my whole life. It was like a second baptism, and its power, from that day forward in the weeks and months ahead, turned my stress into determination and trust.

“When the Savior is washed, all water is cleansed.” I think if I had read these words of St. Maximus of Turin as I sat there on the ground, I would have nodded and smiled.

Grace is everywhere.

In honor of this Mystery, I will leave you with a recording my daughter Maria helped me upload to YouTube. It’s from 2015. My wife and one of her choir members nicknamed “CC” were rehearsing before Mass in the stairwell of the church. I decided to quietly sneak in and record it, unbeknownst to Patti….

Becoming More Verb than Noun

The church is: a conspiracy of love for a dying world, a spy mission into enemy occupied territory ruled by the powers of evil; a prophet from God with the greatest news the world has ever heard, the most life changing and most revolutionary institution that has existed on earth. — Peter Kreeft

In English, to me, the word “church” sounds so bland, dull. So churchy. It is used to translate the Greek word ekklesia, from whence we get words like ecclesial and ecclesiastical. Yet church does not in fact translate the meaning of ekklesia. So where does it come from? Well, in its long history, it descends through German into English from the Greek word kyriakon, “the Lord’s,” referring to the Lord’s house.

Okay, yes, the building, and the people of God who gather there, are indeed the Lord’s house, but what does the actual word ekklesia mean?

Ekklesia, which in the Greek Old Testament translates the Hebrew qahal, can be translated “assembly” or “the summoned.” But its roots in Greek are even more vivid and dynamic, with ek meaning “out” and kalein meaning “to call.” So, church is the gathering of those who have been called out to, as in 1 Peter 2:9:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

So if I playfully stitch together these two etymologies, the church is a mother who stands at the entrance of the Lord’s house and calls out, “Children! Come home! The Feast is prepared…” This virgin-mother pregnant with the divine Word, this bride made one flesh with the Bridegroom, calls out with the Spirit of Jesus to the whole of creation: “Come!” (Rev. 22:17)

So “church” is no static noun, but rather teems with all the vitality of a verbal God, a theo-dramatic action, a living invitation from heaven to earth from the prodigal Father whose mad love is our final resting place.

I’ve always wondered why, in the prodigal son parable, the mother of the sons is nowhere present. Why only the father? Well, I believe Jesus’ parable — like all of them — is an invitation to the Jewish hearers to accept their vocation, their divine “calling” to be the mother of all humanity, standing at the threshold of the Lord’s house, ceaselessly crying out on behalf of a waiting, yearning, running Father who wills that all his children in exile come home.

A great examination of conscience for me today! When homeless men and women encounter me, those living in a thousand exiles, do they find in me a faithful echo of the Father’s homecoming call? Am I the place of welcome into the house of the Father? In the final analysis, that is the vocation within every vocation, and the soul of all prayer — to hear the homecoming call, and then to stand with the Father at the threshold of welcome, crying out…

[Verse 1]
I went the ways of wayward winds
In a world of trouble and sin
Walked a long and crooked mile
Behind a million rank and file
Forgot where I came from
Somewhere back when I was young
I was a good man’s child

[Verse 2]
‘Cause I lost some nameless things
My innocence flew away from me
She had to hide her face from my desire
To embrace forbidden fire
But at night I dream
She’s singing over me
Oh, oh, my child

[Chorus 1]
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me

[Verse 3]
Wondering where I might begin
Hear a voice upon the wind
She’s singing faint but singing true
Son, there ain’t nothing you can do
But listen close and follow me
I’ll take you where you’re meant to be
Just don’t lose faith

[Verse 4]
So I put my hand upon the plow
Wipe the sweat up from my brow
Plant the good seed along the way
As I look forward to the day
When at last I see
My Father run to me
Singing oh, my child

[Chorus 2]
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me
My child

[Chorus 3]
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
At my table
At my table
Return to me

“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

In all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. In all the world, there is no love for you like mine. – Maya Angelou

I was preparing this last week for a talk I gave yesterday on seeking holiness in marriage and family life. Though I was not happy with the talk I gave, the preparation stirred in me so many new insights and reminded me of the immense gift I have in my wife and our children. For that I am so grateful.

Though I did not use this in the talk, I hand wrote these thoughts on the backside of my introduction:

Marriage is absurd. So radical, so extreme, so hard to write about. I think of Jane Austin, in Emma, writing, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” Its truth progressively defines my existence in ways only added-years can reveal. Marriage lays claim to me with a totality nearest the totality of God. So terrifyingly near, marital love is a divine Sacrament, upwelling from the Heart of Christ-fire, barely veiling God’s Face. My vocation is to become in reality what we have promised.

To my wife I’ve pledged, made oath, promised a covenant love equivalent to that due God alone: she lays claim to all my heart, soul, mind, strength, spirit, flesh. To her I have offered my body as a living sacrifice. My life is, at core, a journey into union with her. All else after God is secondary to our path to oneness. To become so perfectly one that we can say in truth, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song 2:16). Hers is my interior life, and mine is hers. Our Sacrament binds my sharing in grace to her, and her sharing in grace to me (1 Cor. 7:14). To her I have vowed poverty, as all is held in common. All other loves in my life, after God, must accede to orbit our love.

As [my grandfather] wrote me, “In our union, there is no ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘my,’ ‘mine.’ Only ‘us,’ ‘ours.’ I don’t know where [your grandmother] begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. And for over 69 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2.”

My life is driven, ignited, inspired, illumined, ravaged, judged each moment by that call.

To see this and believe, I must sell my cleverness and purchase bewilderment…

Homely Holiness

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. — St. John Paul II

I met him first in 1998. He has large calloused hands, dirty fingernails and speaks with a southern twang. He’s been fixing cars since he was a kid, under his dad’s tutelage. He works days, nights and weekends to keep his small business open, and the enormous commitment has cost him a lot in life. Not all good, he admits. But, he once said, “it put food on the family table and a roof over our heads,” as he points to the photographs of his sons and wife pinned to the cork board behind the cash register. He runs an honest business, and you know when you bring your car to him for repair you’ll get all the information you need to decide what’s best for your budget. He’d give you the shirt off his back, remembers everyone’s name, treats his customers like family. He loves to ask me questions about Catholicism whenever I come by, tells me about his struggle to “remember God during the day.” On the wall in the garage is a framed quote: “We abide by the Golden Rule here.”

I met her first in 1995. For about ten years before we met, she had worked for the Catholic Church in a full time ministry that focused on coordinating among several parishes an organized outreach to nursing homes and to the home bound. Her goal, she said, was to make certain the elderly who were without the personal touch of family or friends would have someone to love and advocate for them, and who would allow them to find nourishment for their faith. She finally retired about six years ago, though she continues to serve on a voluntary basis. She always felt a special calling to accompany the elderly who were dying. This, she believed, was her “call within a call” — to be a presence of compassion for people at the end of life. She has shared with me, over the years we have known each other, dozens of stories recounting the ways Jesus has used her to work deathbed miracles of healing, forgiveness, family reconciliation and acceptance of death.

Both have confided to me their inner demons, and both have variously confessed these demons have been their greatest life teachers. As my dad loved to say, “No one can be saved without humility. But you have two choices: Practice it willingly, or God will strip everything from you and teach you. Though most usually take the second, I highly recommend the first.”

I live very far away from both these people now, but, by coincidence, spoke with each of them over the last two weeks. Two very different people from very different backgrounds, but the effect they each have on me is always the same. They leave me lifted, hopeful, filled with a renewed desire to be a better man. I feel more human. As a member of my wife’s choir puts it, “they ooze goodness.” Not Pollyanna goodness, but goodness wrought amid the thorns and thistles of life. People like them, to me, stand among the hidden “pillars of the world” whose greatness is in being unsung, quiet, sans the glitter of memorial plaques and applause. Homely is the holiness I personally find most compelling.

There are so many of these I have come to know. I try to touch the hems of their garments when I am with them.

My wife has long said to me that the people she is most inspired by in life are those who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning people who lack self-knowledge or a strong sense of self or who evince a spiritual low self-esteem. Rather these, she says, are self-less, less self, who very naturally shift the center of gravity to others. In the words of St. Paul, those who “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but humbly count others more important than [themselves]” (Philippians 2:3).

You’re not in control

What a weakness it is to love Jesus Christ only when He caresses us, and to be cold immediately once He afflicts us. This is not true love. Those who love thus, love themselves too much to love God with all their heart. –St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Last week, I visited with a woman I have known for quite a number of years. She’s a person of faith and has seen her share of tragedy in life.  When I asked her how she has dealt with various hardships, she said something that took my breath away. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

There’s a point where you realize that ultimately you’re not in control, and you have two options. You can either curl up into a ball and die or you can open your hands up and live. One is a surrender to your own defeat, the other is a surrender to a victory that’s not your own. For me, that’s the real meaning of power being made perfect in weakness — giving space for God to love you where love seems lost, especially when everything in you says otherwise.

Then I added:

In this is the genesis of all love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us.
Where there is no love, call down that love, and you will draw out love.
This is the epiclesis at the heart of all prayer — hands turned upward to receive before being turned downward to consecrate.