“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” — Gal. 6:2

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“Love is patient,
love is kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way,
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.” (1 Cor 13:4-8).

Years ago when my family and I were living in Brandon, Florida, I met a man who had undergone a faith conversion experience and had become passionately zealous about his faith. He had not practiced any faith most of his adult life, and before coming to faith his marriage was strained by his workaholic lifestyle. His wife and children did not share his conversion experience and he became increasingly angry and frustrated over their resistance to his desire to talk about his faith, to give her material to read or to bring them to church activities. It caused lots of tension at home. His wife was especially disgusted by it all, especially after he told her one day he was “praying for your salvation.” She said, “If you’re going pray for me be sure to tell God, ‘If you’re gonna turn my husband against me, I don’t want your salvation.'”

Eventually, he went to his parish priest to seek support, but the priest (who was just superb) was less than sympathetic to his frustration. The priest said something like, “The best way you can witness to your newfound faith is to become a better husband and father, not to club them over the head with it. Let them see how it makes you a better husband and father, more patient and loving, home more often and less angry, not more angry; and not see that it makes you insufferable to live with. They see you now as worse, not better, and you can’t heap blame on them for that. Look, only one year ago that was you, but now you’ve already lost your patience with them. Back off on the religion talk and ramp up the love.”

The man tole me the priest’s words were a bitter pill to swallow, “but by the grace of God, I swallowed it.”

When I first met this man, it was three or so years after this all had happened, and he said that priest’s advice likely saved his marriage since he had even been contemplating divorce so he could be free to live his faith out “radically.” He was still very passionate about his faith when I met him. His wife never became Catholic, nor did his children, but he said his marriage was stronger than it had ever been and his presence in his children’s lives was far greater than it had been before his conversion. He said, “Hopefully my faith’s made me easier to live with and given me some humility. But most of all I’ve learned to stop demanding our life be on my own terms.”

I thought of this story when I recently read the advice of a Eastern Orthodox spiritual author Hieromonk Gregorios to married couples who find themselves in different places in their life of faith. He says that a great mistake often made by a spouse who is “more fervent in the spiritual life” is to think of him/herself as superior to the less fervent or unbelieving spouse, and are driven by anger, frustration, impatience, judgment or a well-disguised spiritual narcissism to bring about change in their spouse.

Gregorios, thinking out of the tradition of the Desert Fathers, says that what these spiritually immature people really miss is that genuine virtue views others as greater than oneself (Phil. 2:3). The virtuous “place  little importance on their deeds and think everyone else is far better than they are.” Any progress in authentic holiness only strengthens one’s resolve to serve, forgive and spread joy and peace. Genuine virtue intensifies one’s commitment to bear another’s weakness as one’s own (1 Cor. 9:22; Eph. 4:2). He continues,

In the same spirit, St. Isaiah writes, ‘If you are going along your way and there is a sick person with you, allow him to go ahead of you so that if he should want to take rest he is able to do so.’ This attitude of journeying together must be applied to those who wish to run with great speed in the spiritual life but who have a spouse who is unable to keep up with them.

To approach such situations spiritually, we should view ourselves as responsible for the spiritual weakness of the other person, perhaps because we have not shown ourselves to be the image of a true Christian and a real struggler; not only should the weaker one determine the speed of the couple’s common journey, but additionally the one who thinks they are stronger must believe that they are the cause of the spiritual slowness of the other.

When we move to the beat of love, we may appear to be lagging behind spiritually while in fact we are leading the way. When we live in this way within the bonds of marriage, all problems will be faced quietly, peacefully and with discernment — because we face them with love.

O come, O come!

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I gave an Advent parish mission last week. Among the topics I covered, I explored the depth of meaning in a verse we sing so often that we forget what it’s really saying:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This is the plaintive cry of a slave living in exile, begging God to come and liberate. We have a planet filled with such cries, yet without the faith to turn them into prayer. The confident “Rejoice!” of the refrain, filled with certain hope, is only possible when the depth of the plight is fully acknowledged and then brought to God in prayer. Packed into the seemingly placid “O come” is a world of pain, sorrow, hardship, fear, anger, desperation, turned by faith into hope in love that gives wings to prayer.

During the mission, I shared stories of people I have known who have taught me how to pray like this. I shared with them a conversation I had with an Orthodox Rabbi who told me Jews pray not just from the heart, but from the guts; from the depths (Psalm 130). The last prayer of Jesus on the cross was a phōnēn megalēn, a “loud scream” (Mark 15:37), and the next verse says the veil in the Temple was torn. Such prayer rips open heaven.

The word Advent comes from the same Latin root that is found in the Our Father, adveniat regnum tuum, “thy kingdom come.” Advent means, “come!” and so as a season is meant to carve out in us a hunger, thirst, longing, yearning, pining for God to come and save us, rescue us, redeem us, raise us, ransom us. So, I argued, the harder and darker life gets, Christians should more and more become an Advent people “who cry to Him day and night” (Luke 18:7).

And as this season can be hard for many people, Advent is meant to bring to their hardship the brilliance of costly hope gained in deep, sustained and honest prayer to God.

A person followed up the retreat with an email to me saying simply, “Thank you for giving me permission to bring my pain and doubt to God. That’s a new faith for me.” I sent them this lovely version of my second favorite psalm, the brutally honest Psalm 77.

I cry aloud to God
aloud to God and He will hear me
In the day of my troubled soul
I reach out and seek You, Lord
but I can’t feel You

In the night of my pain
darkness falls, questions rage
Have You forsaken?
O God, have You left me all alone?

You keep my eyes from sleep
so troubled I cannot speak a word
I consider the days of old
when I felt Your love and held Your hope
Where have they gone?

In the night of my pain
faith has fled, doubts remain
Have you forsaken?
O God, have You left me all alone?

Your ways, O God
Your ways, O God, are holy
Holy

Your ways, O God
Your ways, O God, are holy
You are holy

Together you hold them up

ericpearcephotography.com

The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, “Then was then, now is now”, is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth: “Recall the former days” (Heb 10:32). Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country.

A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future. “A society that has no room for the elderly or discards them because they create problems, has a deadly virus”; “it is torn from its roots”. Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. — Pope Francis

This last week, I taught my last Sacrament of Marriage class of the semester at the Seminary. It was my first time teaching this course, and I must say that teaching it was significantly life-changing for me. We explored things like the rich theology of marriage in the Catholic tradition; marriage in art (using the movie Shadowlands); same-sex marriage; pre-marital cohabitation; marriage-friendly sub-culture; single parent families; broken marriages; the spirituality of marriage in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition; marriage decline among Millennials.

We spent two weeks on Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” and all agreed Chapter Four should be made into a booklet for marriage prep and marriage enrichment everywhere. In fact, it is a superb examination of conscience for couples. Patti and I will continue to reflect on snippets of it in our daily evening “bubble” for years to come.

Okay, so let me tell the Faithful of the Deep South, the region of the U.S. our Seminary serves: you are in for a treat when these men are (God willing) ordained to diaconate and priesthood. Whoa! These men “get” that marriage and family is the epicenter of the New Evangelization, and they bring a realism, a passion and a vision for marriage and family that will super-abundantly bless the parishes they come to.

My favorite class of the whole semester was the last one. After a brief discussion on Millennials, I offered a final wrap-up lecture and then my wife came to respond to questions students had on marriage and family life. I sat in the back of the room and kept silent as she shared her wisdom with all the energy and authenticity and beauty of her feminine genius. Though she and I have in the past spoken to groups about marriage and family, it was really remarkable to hear her reflect on what 22 years of marriage and 29 years of friendship meant to her for these future priests. It was a transcendent experience for me.

Over the years I have said to couples I know — have your spouse speak to other people about your relationship in front of you, and vice versa, and it will open up whole new perspectives on your life together. My paternal grandparents did it all the time when I would visit them as a child and as an adult and it was beautiful to see and hear! After Patti and I got engaged, we would call them fairly frequently and they would have us rolling with laughter, or choked up with emotion, as they spoke about each other and their life together. My grandfather (Pop), at the time married to Nana for 69 years, wrote Patti and me a 34-page handwritten letter a few weeks before our wedding day. It was jam-packed with advice and stories. Here’s a section from this letter that deeply influenced us both:

Let your children hear from each of you about your love for each other. Your marriage is their story, not only your own. They must learn from your example and from words that explain your example. Remember that it is together you hold them up. Don’t leave the storytelling of marriage and family to radio, TV or school. Tell them yourself what is love, what is faith, what is hardship, what is joy, what is sorrow, what is fidelity, what is infidelity, what is the glue that binds you together, what are the wedges that drive you apart and what are the sutures that stitch you back together again. Telling stories is the most important way for you both to help them see the world through your eyes. Giving children vision is a mother and father’s weightiest noblesse oblige … Tell them our story, the glories and the sorrows …

As I have quoted here often, he ended his letter with what I consider immortal words. I will end this reflection with those words and with one of Nana and Pop’s favorite songs:

God bless you both and your love and marriage. But take it from an old man, but a wise one: From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”. Only “us”, “ours”. I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. 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. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity. So, Tom and Patti, to you we bequeath our heritage, our fidelity and reverence for each other and our gratefulness to God for bringing us together.

My Advent Back-Flip

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This post all about me, so there you have it.

I deactivated my iPhone and have returned to a flip phone for Advent, and from then on.

It’s not a crusade, or some grand protest against smartphones and the like. It was a decision of personal necessity, a recognition of discerned limits.

When my family first got me an iPhone 27 months ago for my birthday, I told them that I had long resisted getting one because I knew myself well enough to know it would be hard for me not to turn it into (1) a portable, total-work-portal and (2) to over-engage my knack for prolixity in communicating with the revolutionary voice-to-text. I give new meaning to the word “hypertext.”

I anticipated I would be tempted, and so it was.

I fought valiantly, devised various schemes for limiting myself, but alas! I was vanquished. I’m intense, and my mind never sleeps. The iPhone, well suited to such a penchant, offered me ever-fresh fodder in steady supply. Good things, indeed, just far too many of them. During our anniversary getaway in October, I realized, after a long and wonderfully deep conversation with my wife, that my mentality — my presence of mind — had become diffused, distracted, doubled by the iPhone. In fact, “doubled” best expressed for me the effect, as the phone had shaped in me a potent bias toward a virtual ‘elsewhere,’ detracting from the concrete world of my immediate daily existence that demands primacy as it contains my primary vocation.

My asceticism in general largely looks like barricade building, as I identify my weaknesses and temptations and then systematically limit their access to preferred suppliers. For me, this works best as, instead of choosing to talk to the devil directly, I just avoid and block my access to his favored haunts. As a friend of mine (who has lived a lot of life) often says, “I can resist everything but temptation.” lol And I usually bring other people into the act, to ensure accountability, as I am too willing to excuse small transgressions until they snowball into sizable ones. I imagine I’m not different than most. My wife is my technology accountability partner, and she has been excellent in keeping me honest, in her typically brutally honest way. Deo gratias.

Yes, I have lost quite a number of wonderful features the iPhone afforded me, which are such gifts; especially group texting, voice-to-text, and easy access to calendar/email. But a week into it, the benefits of flipping have been immediate and wondrous, with some being surprisingly unexpected. If I seem to be exaggerating, I’m not. I’ll name four benefits to give you a taste:

  1. I very quickly experienced a freeing diminishment of those diffusing, distracting and doubling effects, and a rapid re-entry into the slow moving, mundane and concrete world of my immediate daily existence. So much so, that I have had some genuine ‘wow’ moments in seeing my mentality re-center and settle back on the faces and places in front of me. The world has shaded brighter, more colorful, more vivid.
  2. Having lost my GPS, I now have returned to a favorite past-time: reading and memorizing road maps. I found myself this week dazzled at the resurrection of my spacial imagination, realizing I have never really learned Louisiana in my own mind. All I could think of last weekend as I drove to Albany, LA to do a parish mission was Psalm 84:5: “They are happy in whose hearts are the roads to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)!
  3. Now that texting (and emailing limited to my desktop) without voice-to-text is quite an effort, like handwriting, what I text is much more intentional, concise and thought out. I’ve remembered a bit more just how much I appreciate individual words and the labor of writing them. Flip texting (and desktop emailing) also slows down the volume of correspondence massively, which, while I lose out on many good things, has allowed me to re-appreciate simplicity. It has also made me much much more realistic about how many conversations I can (and should) actually sustain.
  4. As the camera-video features are pathetic, I have lost the tendency I had to want to capture, more than simply experience, the world happening around me in real-time. I love taking photos of people and things to treasure and share, but I found the iPhone made me think more and more of life as better captured and shared than experienced raw in the moment without a lens and savored later in conversation and memory.

I share all of this as a personal quest to place digital communications technology in service to my humanity; to my vocation; to my quest to be, as my colleague Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome says so well, “connected toward communion.” I wish to be able to worthily receive the sacrament of the present moment at every moment. I wish to conserve my ability to attend with love, before all else, to my neighbor, to my nigh-bor, the nearby inhabitants of my immediate world that command my attention first and foremost. To receive the grace that’s in my face.

My Advent motto is, Simplify, do or die. Time will tell.

I’ll leave you with 10 additional reasons I, also, preferred the flip. Hopefully they will make you smile.

Let go and let God

“The Annunciation,” Nicolas Poussin. 1660. nationalgallery.org.uk

A blessed Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to all.

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In this great fiat of the little girl Mary, the strength and foundation of our life of contemplation is grounded, for it means absolute trust in God, trust which will not set us free from suffering but will set us free from anxiety, hesitation, and above all from the fear of suffering. Trust which makes us willing to be what God wants us to be, however great or however little that may prove. Trust which accepts God as illimitable Love. ― Caryll Houselander

A 92 year woman I know here in New Orleans spoke to me about the loneliness of old age with me last week. I have come to know her well. She is effectively estranged from most of her six children. Such a tragic story. I had asked her that particular day what was hardest about her life now. She said,

The time you have to think about the past is hard. Very hard. Regrets. My children [tears] … But, let me tell you, when you get old you realize what matters and what doesn’t matter. You get perspective. Things you thought were so important, aren’t. What matters is love. If you could go back, take words back, you’d do it all differently. But there’s no going back. That’s always there.

I just sit and look at [the image on her wall of] Jesus and tell Him things. He’s such a good listener. His face always tells me, “Give me everything.” Such a kind face. [smile, tears] The best part of getting old is that you can just let go, because what’s left? [laugh] It’s like He just gently pries everything out of your hands and then you just realize one day, “Wow, it’s all gone!” [soft laugh] I am grateful God allowed me to stay this long. I’m not afraid of dying. He knows I’m ready any time to let go. I tell Him every day, I’m ready when you are.

Then I asked her what she would tell me, as a young man, what I should do that she wished she had done. She said,

Let go and let God. Trust Him. And love as much as you can. Take lots of time to love. You’ll never regret loving. Never. Only not. Especially your children. When you think back on your life, you’ll say, “Every time I took to love, that’s what mattered. No regrets.”

When I got home that night, among other things, I wrote,

As I listened to her, I was deeply moved by the childlike way she expressed an almost majestic inner freedom that she used to give herself over to God. In her presence, I could feel inside of me all of my clasping and clinging exposed. So much reason for bitterness in her life, yet only sweetness. But not living in fantasy; very real. And her humility is so deeply meshed ‘in her fibers,’ so totally natural and unaffected that she is without any trace of self-conscious obsession. No proving, defending, justifying, rationalizing, grasping left.

All I could think was — this is what being without sin must have meant for Mary; why Mary was able to so very naturally surrender her soul and body over to God so completely that He could take her to Himself without her having to die first. Let it be done to me! For us, proximity to death gives us opportunity to succumb to Love. Dispossession.

May my time be wasted on loving, on letting go, on just looking at Him and telling Him things. He’s such a good listener, such a kind face. His face always tells me, “Give me everything.”

Listen to the Mustn’ts

[one last ’til Thursday…a free-falling meditation I wrote in a coffee shop on John 19:30 spilling all over everything. Ave=”Hail!” and Nova Eva=”New Eve”]

Yes, that’s the heart of Advent.

O preposterous, breaking-and-entering Thief, opening fissures in our hardened Heartland! Onto parched clay, thirsty earth, you splashed, splattered down torrential waters. A dreadful drenching, awe-inducing, hope-producing, life-diffusing Kingdom come.

Into the Land of Impossibles, the Possible. Into the Land of Fate, Providence. Into the Land of Won’t, Will. Into the Land of Can’t, Did. Into the Land of Not, Is. Into the Land of No, Yes. Into the Land of Old, New. Into the Land of Death, Life.

We are the fissures, priests of creation’s undoing, redoing, calling down Downpours on our Land’s re-creation. Offering from desert death, a Garden bloom.

What Child is this, dreaming of such Impossibles? Listen, O priestly-Man, to God-with-us saying in His dying, “It is finished!” Now new, Anything can be — miracles, martyrs, mercy, Mass testify of this eloquently.

O Come, O Come all who tighten the knot of Eve ’round the neck of God! Me, in my every binding sin. Behold! In cradle and cross, One of Three co-entangled, untangling by the Ave to Nova Eva to set us free.

A Gardener, unobtrusive as the dewfall, heavy-laden with sowing seeds, scattering liberally, profusely, wastefully. Beneath His footsteps earth splits open, yawning, yearning, receiving sunward the downfalling Dew; flowering in song.

Awaken. Sprout. Flower. Seed. Die only to Rise in Eternity.

¡Absolutamente imposible!

Silent
Wait
Watch
Patient
Joy
Give
Advent.

Down to the Jordan

Jordan River. pilgrimtoursofjordan.com

I didn’t plan to post until next Thursday, but I had a brief inspiration yesterday evening before falling asleep, so I took a few minutes to write it down. I’ll share it here, along with a (click here ->) wonderful Advent series.

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A friend of mine, Jordan Haddad, sent me this music video. I fell in love with it immediately, as did my family.

During Advent we will approach the Jordan River and allow St. John the Baptist to invite us again to hope in the Messiah who comes to save us from our sins.

Jesus.

There are times when I can see my own sins, failures and weaknesses with such a terrible clarity. Terrible, indeed. That night was so dark. Those are the times when I realize I can’t hide from man or from God, or from myself. I find myself faced with a fundamental choice: denial, despair or divine mercy. The first is unsustainable, the second is un-survivable, while the third is unlimited freedom.

I chose to be found. O Jesus, in the Jordan, here I am.

In the darkest night, when the air is thick, my lungs heavy and my mind weighted down with fear and shame, I say the 5 words St. Faustina gave to the Church, “Jesus, I trust in you.” So simple, so deep. I join Him down at the Jordan where He, All-Innocent, wades down into the muddy waters of my repentance to take up and away the sins of my world and bring me home. I seem to hear Him sing to me,

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Thank you, God, for such costly hope. May I bear it with me.