All rind, no meat

Image result for praying and feeding poor

[Re-re-post from 2017, 2021 — thanks for asking, jp]

The Holy Spirit teaches us to love even our enemies. When you love this way, your prayer has born its sweetest fruit. — St. Silouan

I was talking with someone at a retreat I gave a little while ago. He shared a really great insight:

About ten years ago I had a crusty old Jesuit as a spiritual director. He’s now deceased. I loved him because he kept me honest.

Once I was sharing with him some lofty experiences I had had in prayer, and some of the deep insights I had received. He listened in his usual dispassionate way. After I finished he said, “How are you doing with your sister?” My sister and I had a falling out months prior. He knew she was a thorn in my side, that we didn’t ever get along well.

Thinking his attention must have wandered while I spoke, I said to him a bit louder: “Excuse me, Father?” He repeated his question again, “Your sister? Are you speaking?” I said, “Well, as I told you last time, I’m not ready to re-connect with her yet. Still too raw. But with all due respect, what does that have to do with what I’m sharing with you, Father?” He said, “Well, when you’re ready to forgive her and reach out again and face the unpleasantness of love — well, then I’ll be impressed with these experiences in prayer you describe. Until then, it’s all rind, no meat.”

Then he ended with the gut punch: “Next time you get filled up by your prayer, be sure to spend it on your sister.”

The man said to me, “What was THAT?” We laughed.

My own first spiritual director, a Trappist monk, was of the same mind as that Jesuit priest. He was a St. John of the Cross devotee, and told me once to

remember that the lofty spiritual poetry about mystical union St. John describes happened while he was imprisoned in a tiny latrine with minimal food, with no change of clothing for 6 months, and with a weekly lashing by the friars. But the way John saw it, the beautiful poetry about mystical union with Christ was one-and-the-same with his awful predicament. He was lavished with spiritual sweetness by Jesus so he could spend it all on his envious and hateful Carmelite brothers.

To that point, it’s not surprising that the man who stood guard at his latrine-cell during the last 3 months before his escape said John became more gentle and kind as his conditions grew worse.

This drives home the point that you can’t properly understand the spiritual classics apart from the context of their author’s lives. Genuinely Christian spiritual authors who write lofty thoughts about prayer are, like the rest of us, sunk in the daily mess of human dysfunction. And that’s their core message! It is there, in the crucible, where we discover Christian greatness. Not when life is ideal, when things are going my way.

St. John would argue relentlessly that without the unavoidable, irritating or inconvenient neighbors, Christian mysticism quickly devolves into solipsistic and gnostic navel gazing. Without a cross at the center of things, we become spiritual gluttons who store up surplus grain to feed ourselves. Instead, we should seek to emulate the destitute widow Jesus so greatly admired, who gave away her last two coins into the Temple treasury.

In many ways, to be spiritual but not religious is a choice to run away from association with broken humanity. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word which means “to bind to,” as religion binds us to God and God’s people in a covenant with strong demands. In this sense, to reject religion and seek to be spiritual is a path of seeking a delightful, antiseptic, self-governed experience of God. But for the Christian, God’s plan is to bind us together in a reconciled community with real humans dirtied by hypocrisy and filth. A community of saints, sinners and misfits is the Church of Reality, not Ideality.

So, per that Jesuit priest, I try to remember: After my time of prayer if I feel peace, I am to give peace. If I receive forgiveness, I am to give forgiveness. If I feel loved, I am to love. If I am enlightened, I am to illumine. If I feel encouraged, I am to encourage. If I am nourished, I am to nourish. And if I hear God call, I am to go. “You received without payment; give without payment” (Mt. 10:8).

Honor in the fragility of old age

Neglect of the elderly or their outright rejection are intolerable.
Their presence in the family, or at least their closeness to the family
in cases where limited living space or other reasons make this impossible,
is of fundamental importance in creating a climate of mutual interaction
and enriching communication between the different age-groups.
It is therefore important to preserve,
or to re-establish where it has been lost,
a sort of “covenant” between generations. – Pope St. John Paul II

Below is the text of Pope Francis’ weekly Wednesday audience, delivered on April 20, 2022. A man I know who works in eldercare sent it to me. I thought it would be a good sequel to my Monday post.

Dear brothers and sisters, good morning!

Today, with the help of the Word of God that we have heard, we open a passage through the fragility of old age, marked in a special way by the experiences of confusion and despondency, of loss and abandonment, of disillusionment and doubt. Of course, the experiences of our frailty in the face of life’s dramatic – sometimes tragic – situations can occur at any stage of life. However, in old age they can produce less of an impression and induce in others a kind of habituation, even annoyance.

How many times have we heard or thought: ‘Old people are a nuisance’’ – ‘But, these old people are always a nuisance’: don’t deny it, that’s the way it is… We’ve said it, we’ve thought it… The more serious wounds of childhood and youth rightly provoke a sense of injustice and rebellion, a strength to react and fight. On the other hand, the wounds, even serious ones, of old age are inevitably accompanied by the feeling that, in any case, life is not contradicting itself, because it has already been lived. And so the elderly are somewhat removed from our experience: we want to keep them at a distance.

This special love that paves the way in the form of honor – that is, tenderness and respect at the same time – intended for the elderly is sealed by God’s commandment.

In the common human experience, love – as is said – descends: it does not return to the life behind with the same force that it pours out on the life that is still before us. The gratuitousness of love also appears in this: parents have always known this, the old soon learn it. Nevertheless, revelation opens a way for reciprocating love in a different way: that of honoring those who have gone before us, the way of honoring the people who came before us, of honoring the elderly.

This special love that paves the way in the form of honor – that is, tenderness and respect at the same time – intended for the elderly is sealed by God’s commandment. “Honor thy father and mother” is a solemn commitment, the first of the “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments. It is not just about one’s own father and mother. It is about their generation and the generations before, whose leave-taking can also be slow and prolonged, creating a time and space of long-lasting coexistence with the other ages of life. In other words, it is about the old age of life, old age…

Honor is a good word to frame this aspect of returning love that concerns old age. That is, we have received the love of parents, of grandparents, and now we return this love to them, to the elderly, to our grandparents. Today we have rediscovered the term ‘dignity’, to indicate the value of respecting and caring for the age [life] of everyone. Dignity, here, is essentially equivalent to honor: honoring father and mother, honoring the elderly, and recognizing the dignity they possess.

Let us think carefully about this beautiful expression of love which is honor. Even care for the sick, the support of those who are not self-sufficient, the guarantee of sustenance, can be lacking honor. Honor is lacking when an excess of confidence, instead of being expressed as delicacy and affection, tenderness and respect, is transformed into roughness and abuse. This occurs when weakness is reproached, and even punished, as if it were a fault, and when bewilderment and confusion become an opening for derision and aggression.

It can happen even in the home, in nursing homes, as well as in offices or in the open spaces of the city. Encouraging in young people, even indirectly, an attitude of condescension – and even contempt – for the elderly, for their weaknesses and their precariousness, produces horrible things. It opens the way to unimaginable excesses. The young people who set fire to a “bum’s” blanket – we’ve seen this, haven’t we? – because they see him as a human reject, and we often think that the old are the refuse, or we put them in the trash; these young people who have set fire to a bum’s blanket are the tip of the iceberg, that is, of the contempt for a life that, far from the attractions and impulses of youth, already seems to be a life to be cast aside. ‘Refuse’ is the word, isn’t it? To despise the elderly and cast them from life, to put them aside, to put them down.

Honor is a good word to frame this aspect of returning love that concerns old age. We have received the love of parents, of grandparents, and now we return this love to them.
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This contempt, which dishonors the elderly, actually dishonors all of us. If I dishonor the elderly, I dishonor myself. The passage from the Book of Sirach, which we heard at the beginning, is rightly harsh on this dishonor, which cries out for vengeance in the sight of God. There is a passage in the story of Noah that is very expressive in this regard – I don’t know if you have it in mind. The elderly Noah, the hero of the flood and still a hard worker, lies unconscious after having had a few too many drinks. He’s already old, but he’s had too much to drink. His sons, in order not to wake him up and embarrass him, gently cover him, looking aside, with great respect. This text is very beautiful and says everything about the honor due to an old man. To cover the weakness of the elderly, so they don’t feel ashamed. A text that helps us a lot.

In spite of all the material provisions that richer and more organized societies make available for old age – of which we can certainly be proud – the struggle for the restoration of that special form of love which is honor still seems fragile and immature. We must do all we can to support and encourage it, offering better social and cultural support to those who are sensitive to this decisive form of the ‘civilisation of love’.

And on this point, allow me to offer some advice to parents: please, bring your children, young children, closer to the elderly, always bring them closer. And when the elderly person is ill, a bit out of their mind, always approach them: let them know that this is our flesh, that this is what has made it possible for us to be here. Please don’t push the elderly away. And if there is no other option than to send them to a nursing home, please visit them and bring the children to see them: they are the honor of our civilization, the old people who opened the doors. And many times, the children forget this.

Please cherish the elderly. And [even] if their mind goes, cherish the old. Because they are the presence of history, the presence of my family, and thanks to them I am here.
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I’ll tell you something personal: I used to love visiting nursing homes in Buenos Aires. I went often. I went often, I visited each one… And I remember once I asked a lady: ‘And how many children do you have?’ – ‘I have four, all married, with grandchildren …,’ and she started talking to me about the family. ‘And do they come [to visit]?’ – ‘Yes, [she said,] ‘they always come!’ When I left the room, the nurse, who had heard, said to me: ‘Father, she told a lie to cover up for her children. Nobody has come for six months!’ This is discarding the old, it is thinking that the old are refuse.

Please: it is a grave sin. This is the first great commandment, and the only one that says the reward: ‘Honor your father and your mother, and you will have long life on earth.’ This commandment to honor the elderly gives us a blessing, which is expressed in this way: ‘You will have long life.’ Please cherish the elderly. And [even] if their mind goes, cherish the old. Because they are the presence of history, the presence of my family, and thanks to them I am here, we can all say: thanks to you, grandfather and grandmother, I am alive.

Please don’t leave them alone. And this, looking after the elderly, is not a question of cosmetics and plastic surgery, no. Rather, it is a question of honor, which must transform how we educate the young about life and its stages. Love for the human person that is common to us, including honoring a life lived, is not a matter for the old. Rather it is an ambition that will bring radiance to the youth who inherit its best qualities. May the wisdom of God’s Spirit grant us to open the horizon of this true cultural revolution with the necessary energy. Thank you.

Just look at reality

Thought I’d share with you a dose of the strong medicine named (the late) Fr. Tom Hopko. Enjoy. Fr. Tom, pray for us!

+ + +

Why are they afraid to take a look at [their crosses]? Millions of reasons. One, because then they have to face it, they have to do something about it, they have to take responsibility, but also because it might just be too painful. For example, suppose one of my crosses is that I have been abused by my parents, let’s say sexually. You think that’s an easy thing to admit, especially if you’ve come to church all your life and were told you’re to honor your father and your mother? And you don’t want to admit even that your father did this to you—but he did, and it’s real, and you’re not going to be healed until you admit it. And what he did could be anything: it could be rejection; it could be he himself might have been a troubled person; he might have himself been emotionally deprived or only half there, emotionally or physically or whatever; he himself might have been caught up in greed or covetousness or working for his family and he never was available to you. You don’t want to remember that, you don’t want to think of that, but that’s what’s bothering you, that’s what’s killing you.

Now, unless we have other people that could help us and say, “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. I’ll hold your hand. I’ll be with you…” You know, I found myself as a priest saying to people about a hundred times: You’re not going to die. You’re going to have to die, but you’re not going to die. That’s the whole point. And this kind of dying is going to make you come alive, exactly, because you’ve got to die to the delusional, false self that isn’t really you that you may not even know is even there because it’s covered up with so much repression, oppression, delusion, fake images, lies that people put upon you.

The Prophet Jeremiah says the heart of a person is deep and desperately corrupt, and to get into that corruption, that garbage that’s in us, St. Isaac of Syria, one great saint that I read every day, he said if you’re going to go the way of the cross, you must be ready to stand the stench, the garbage that’s going to come up inside you and around you when you start seeing things the way they really are and feeling them, not only knowing them with your brain, but feeling them.

That’s why a lot of people flee this kind of activity. It’s just too painful. It’s just too sad. It may be that there’s generations of grief in there that’s going to have to come out and be wept over. It’s going to be like lancing a boil that’s got to come out, and you’d rather live with the pain of the boil than lance it, especially if you don’t know what’s going to come out and you’re scared to death in your subconscious what you’re going to discover. But unless you go in there, you’re not going to discover it. And unless you let Christ in there, you’re not going to discover it. So many people need help to let love in, to let healing power in.

And they need help even to be able to admit that they’re sick. How many people say, “There’s nothing wrong with me!” Alcoholics, for example. I’ve known alcoholics. I’ve shown them their wives’ bruises. “No, it’s not me. What are you saying that for? What the heck is this? I’m in church every Sunday, Father, you know that.” I say, “That’s true. What good did it do you?” You may even have used that to cover over your sickness. By the way, many people use religion to cover over their sickness, exactly not to come to terms with what’s really going on. They think they go to church, they’ll say a few prayers, and then they don’t have to face it. Well, you’ve got to face it.

By the way, that’s why one of the saints, Theophan the Recluse, said that’s why many people who become very religious become worse instead of better. They’re more nuts, more crazy, more evil than they were before they came and got involved in church. Why? Because they’re going through all the motions, they’re going through all the words, they’re going to holy Communion, but they’re not allowing love and light into the deepest part of their being to be healed. So what’s happening is that light and that love actually can come in and cause greater harm if the person is not using the light to be healed. It’ll exacerbate the wound. It’ll make you more crazy. By the way, we are either sane in the kingdom of God or crazy in hell, and in the meantime we can play back and forth with it. But if you’re going to come to the Church, unless you surrender to the fire of the consuming love of God that’s shown in the cross, and if you really take the body broken and the blood spilled and don’t let your own body be broken and blood spilled for the love to exist, you’re just going to make yourself crazy.

God forgive me, but I think that’s going on in our Church a lot nowadays. When you hear the evils that go on in our churches, how people hate each other, how the Church isn’t anything near what it’s supposed to be, what’s the answer? The only answer is because we don’t want the cross. We don’t want God. We don’t want the love of God. But we keep all the other things and become more and more crazy as days go by, more and more evil, more and more wild or more and more—how can you say?—to use classic expression, deluded. Deluded: it’s not nice at all. And the minute someone says, “Hey, it ain’t nice,” they say, “Ha! Negative person! Wants to be Jeremiah the Prophet or something.”

But it’s madness! It’s madness! Just look at reality.

If I could buy myself a conscience that wasn’t broken
Mend every fence I drove my hard head through
Relock all the doors I wish I never opened
Unlearn the things I wish I never knew

And it came out through the bottle
It came out through my fists
It came out way too early
I wish it never did

Push it down, it comes out sideways
Push it down, it comes out sideways
Bitter roads turn into highways
Push it down, it comes out sideways

I have days where it’s just nose above the water
Keep it together while I fall apart
I have moments when I act just like my father
The only man that ever broke my heart

And it comes out in my silence
Sometimes unwanted tears
Comes out disguised as anger
But it’s really fear

Push it down, it comes out sideways
Push it down, it comes out sideways
Bitter roads turn into highways
Push it down, it comes out sideways

Push it down, it comes back up
Push it down, it comes back up
Push it down, it comes back up
Push it down, it comes back up

Push it down, it comes out sideways
Push it down, it comes out sideways
Bitter roads turn into highways
Push it down, it comes out sideways

“Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy” (1 Chron. 16:33)

“And into the forest I go,
to lose my mind and find my soul” – John Muir

God loves trees. This is certainly the view of Scripture. Lone trees, forests, trees growing in gardens or by streams. They give shade, fruit, lumber. They sing for joy (Ps. 96:12) and clap their hands (Is. 55:12) for the Lord. They were created by God in the beginning and will be with us forever in Paradise. And on the Cross, it was a tree that bore our ancient curse of death and budded forth the eternal fruit of Life for the whole of creation.

And so trees are also a sign of God’s love. Pope Francis:

The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, His boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

From my earliest memories, I remember being enamored by trees. They were full of magic and mystery. In our home’s backyard in Rhode Island, where I spent the first six years of my life, we had a row of white pines that seemed to me to be as immense as sequoias! We also had a crabapple tree on the side of our house that would bear prolific fruit in the early summer, all of which would end up on the ground. In fact, my first experience of inebriated birds was watching (I think) blue jays eat the fermented apples and then have a hard time flying away – at least that was my oldest brother’s interpretation!

When we moved to Massachusetts, my parents bought a home with a sizeable patch of ‘woods’ in the back of the house (the sideways photo above is of a garden my brother and I planted in 1978 at the edge of those trees). I was in heaven. Until about the age of twelve, whenever I was not in school, I would spend most of my time in those woods. It was populated by, among other varieties, sugar maples, white pines, quaking aspens, white birches, red and white oaks, and my favorite tree of all, the blue spruce. I knew every tree, bush, rock, bird nest, ant mound, salamander haunt and snake’s lair. That patch of trees was for me a sanctuary of solitude and quiet, perfectly shaped to resonate the songs of birds, translate the wind into a rustle or whisper, and hide me from people. When I was there, all was well.

Many years later, my wife, children and I went back to visit – and I was crushed to see that patch of trees had been completely leveled and a house built there. With none of the original trees left.

Where we live now is sparse on trees, and many of the trees we do have in our area have been knocked down by recent hurricanes that have come through. A deep gap in my soul. But whenever we travel to a place where there are trees, I try to find time to go out and visit. Such joy! I love to pray Isaiah 44:23:

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob
and will be glorified in Israel.

Amid trees is where I pray best, accompanied by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

So may I encourage you today, or soon, to give thanks to God for trees; to appreciate, notice and celebrate their beauty; to plant a tree; or to remember the way a tree communicated something good, beautiful or true to you. Slow down and look up!

Rightly Oriented Adults

May we always care for our children, not counting the cost, so that they may never believe themselves to be mistakes, but always know their infinite worth. The elderly are so often discarded with an attitude of abandonment, which is actually real and hidden euthanasia! It is the result of a throw away culture which is so harmful to our world. Children are thrown away, young people are thrown away, because they have no work, and the elderly are thrown away with the pretense of maintaining a “balanced economy,” which has at its center not the human person but money. We are all called to oppose this poisonous, throw away culture. — Pope Francis

I was talking with someone this last weekend after a celebration event, and he said something I found super insightful. He works for a government agency. I was sharing with him the story I shared in my Saturday post about re-homing children, and he began to go off about the many failures of the foster care and adoption system. Then he made this side comment that I wanted to share here:

I’ve always said that the tell-tale measure of any civilization’s health is how adults treat children and the elderly. Adults exist [1] to spend their best energies on welcoming children into a world positioned for them to become excellent human beings and [2] revering the elderly so they can reap the benefits of the world they helped build for us as children.

But look at us, we’ve screwed it all up. Unbridled sex; killing unborn children; robbing them of the right to a home with a mom and dad loving them; celebrating self-indulgence; consuming the earth’s resources to indulge our adult pleasures; casting the old into living tombs; turning on each other while refusing to act like reasonable adults entrusted with the future welfare of the world. Through it all, screwing those at the dawn and dusk of life.

But when you don’t have belief in a God who restrains your impulses, it seems that’s what you get. Who wants it? Not me. So we make a change in the law to protect unborn children, good. But the culture is already far gone. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, but it also eats law. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

I was speechless. So maybe I’ll just leave it at that.

Woven in the World with Jesus

[here’s the piece I mistakenly posted yesterday before I had finished writing it]

“The laity, by their very vocation,
seek the kingdom of God by engaging
in this-world affairs
ordering them according to the plan of God.
They live in the world, that is,
in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations.
They live in the ordinary circumstances
of family and social life,
from which the very web of their existence is woven.
They are called there by God…” (Lumen Gentium 31)

I received a lot of emails riffing on Friday’s post about the man I met last Fall who had suffered a series of tragedies in his life. I wrote the post after reading that quote in David Brooks’ Road to Character. Its perspective on the human art of accompaniment deeply resonated not only with that conversation, but with my own life experience and the example of great human beings I have met in life. The responses I received from people were so insightful and honest.

But I also received an email Friday from a woman who wrote me from another perspective. I asked her if I could post a clip from her email and she kindly agreed. She said:

“Thank you for helping me see on the feast of the Sacred Heart that Jesus can be found in a six pack shared between friends. While I’m very into my religious activities at my church my husband is not so much. He’s a good man and goes to church on Sundays with our family but he always says he relates to God in his own way. I say yeah sure I know but I mostly think that’s an excuse so I try to drag him with me to church things. Which he doesn’t like. For whatever reason your story today hit me with a 2×4 and helped me see what I miss, that God can show up anywhere and my husband’s way is not necessarily less than mine. Which is I guess what I think though I wouldn’t say that out loud. He’ll be grateful to you! And maybe I’ll even enjoy a beer with Jesus and my husband haha”

She signed the email, “The Church Mouse Wife.” Which made me laugh out loud.

First, I love that little story. But I also really appreciated that she picked that small detail out and found it revelatory. What she says is in so many ways at the heart of my own sense of life mission as a theological thinker — to uncover something of what I like to call the mundane mysticism of secular sanctity. In other words, that God draws us to himself not only in the explicitly religious and sacred, but, for those whose lives are “woven” into the mundane by calling, God appears in the ordinary, homely, even unexpected spaces of daily life. As Meister Eckhart put it:

He who has God thus essentially, takes him divinely, and for him God shines forth in all things, for all things taste divinely to him, and God’s image appears to him from out of all things.

A truly lay spirituality allows a generous place for a kind of piety that’s absolutely at home in those most ordinary of spaces, a piety woven into the fabric of those who love life in the world. As St. Josemaría Escriva said it, these are the ones whose path to holiness is principally found in being “passionately in love with the world,” a holiness found in celebrating this creation and struggling to make this world a true home where the Kingdom is planted and takes root. To exalt heaven you need not denigrate earth, to long for eternity you need not despise time, to love God you need not hate creation. Only sin ruins our ability to “so love the world” as God does — which it does.

Heaven loves earth, eternity reveres time and God saves his creation — and Christians are to be the happy mediators that end their estrangement and join the two as one. And don’t make the estrangement worse, in either direction.

Church mice remind worldlings of the need for transcendence, that they need to always remember heaven in their earthly-mindedness. But church mice need worldlings equally, to remind them of God’s immanence, God’s nearness to us in all things, and of need to remember earth in their heavenly-mindedness.

But its when worldlings and church mice come together in synergy that the magic happens. Together they can mightily building the Kingdom of God in history, raise up earthly kingdoms open to the Kingdom that is coming — drawing the city of man into friendship with the city of God.

Church mice and worldlings — truly a marriage made in heaven!

Post-Roe America

[sorry for mis-post earlier]

Now is the time to begin the work of building a post-Roe America. It is a time for healing wounds and repairing social divisions; it is a time for reasoned reflection and civil dialogue, and for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love. — United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Yesterday’s extraordinary transformation of American legal culture on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus no doubt bears innumerable symbolic meanings for us as Catholics. Among them, for me, is a stark reminder that the real mission of Christians is to reach human hearts — broken, estranged, angry, fearful, hardened hearts. The heart is the only fountainhead of a culture of life and civilization of love. We are of course a deeply divided nation, which is from God an unambiguous vocation for the whole Church: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).

Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.

What the Bishops say above is the work of a Field Hospital Church that echoes in itself the words of the Second Vatican Council:

The joys and the hopes,
the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age,
especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,
these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties
of the followers of Christ.
United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit
in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father
and they have welcomed the news of salvation
which is meant for every man.

And so yesterday’s Feast reminds those of us who defend life in the womb to make our own the Heart of Christ, who said:

Come to me, all you who are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you,
and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

May we, I be willing to take on this heart that is Home for a homeless world.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in. — Is. 58:12

Jesus, “God with us”

[I will post as I am able these days, more or less consistently]

We are called at certain moments
to comfort people who are enduring some trauma.
Many of us don’t know how to react in such situations,
but others do.
In the first place, they just show up.
They provide a ministry of presence.
Next, they don’t compare.
The sensitive person understands that each person’s ordeal
is unique and should not be compared to anyone else’s.
Next, they do the practical things–making lunch,
dusting the room, washing the towels.
Finally, they don’t try to minimize what is going on.
They don’t attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments.
They don’t say that the pain is all for the best.
They don’t search for silver linings.
They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma.
They practice a passive activism.
They don’t bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved.
The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of her own process.
She lets the sufferer define the meaning of what is going on.
She just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness,
being practical, human, simple, and direct. ― David Brooks

To all that I say, Yes. “The dignity of her own process.” That’s so well-articulated.

I was speaking to a gentleman late last Fall who had been through an immense amount of loss in the last several years – health, a business and, worst of all, a child to suicide, among other things. A heap of hurt. We were talking about it all, and he said some things I found really striking because they were so candid. He gave me permission to share it. Here’s part of what’s in my journal:

…People have been so kind to me throughout. So much support. So many prayers and meals and cards. It’s really overwhelming and humbling. Just so many good folks out there, you know?

But I’ll be honest, Tom. I’ve given up talking about [these tragedies] to most people, to find support. I mean, people are well intentioned, but it usually makes it worse. Leaves me feeling like shit. Which I hate to say. They want to be helpful, you know? Of course. But it’s mostly awkward for them and for me. Very few people, I find, can just listen and accept it as it is. And just sit there in it with me. And who blames them? It’s heavy and hard to hear. I’d find that hard too.

…and they want to make it better quick, cast a positive light on it all. Platitudes. Especially faith ones. Which I get! Who doesn’t want things to all work out and see purpose in it all? But there’s no room left for doubt. Not being okay with it.

Or people will tell me they can relate and tell me about their bad stuff – which is fine. Okay? Don’t get me wrong. I get it. And in a sense they’re right. We all go through stuff. But sometimes, Tom, it becomes like a pissing contest – who’s in worse shape? Then you just feel bad and don’t ever want to say anything again. I don’t know, I even feel bad saying all this to you.

But you know, I’ll say this. The best help I feel I can get is perfectly illustrated by a guy I’ve known in business for many years. A rough rider. Seen lots of hardship himself. He came to me [a week after my child’s funeral] with a six pack, we sat out back of my house and he said: “Really sucks.” I said, “Yeah.” That’s it. Then we just sat there sipping on our beer. For like an hour. I had tears streaming down my face, but he never said a word about it. Then he got up and said, “Okay brother, I’ve gotta head back but you let me know if I can do anything for you.”

He left, and drove back to home. Which was over three hours away. Imagine that? And I felt lifted. And I could say I felt God’s presence for the first time [since my child’s death] right after he left. It was the medicine I needed.

For some people maybe that wouldn’t have helped, but for me that was what I needed most.

This man’s friend was in so many ways the best description of Jesus’ name, Emmanuel “God with us.” Those two men had been friends for a long time, probably over thirty years, which you just can’t manufacture. The power in friendship.

For the man I spoke with, his friend was like the three friends of Job, who just sat with him in the sack cloth and ashes not saying a word. For this man, his friend was the heart of Jesus, understated, homely, devoid of pious flourish, just being with him…with a six pack.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, give me a compassionate heart like unto Thine. Amen.

Fraternal correction

[I will not post for a few days. Thank you always for taking time to read here]

In reality, before the Lord we are all sinners
and all in need of forgiveness.
All of us.
Indeed, Jesus told us not to judge.
Fraternal correction is an aspect of the love
and the communion that should reign
in the Christian community.
It is a mutual service that we can
and must render to each other
and it is possible and effective only
if each person recognizes himself as a sinner
and in need of the Lord’s forgiveness.
The same awareness that enables me
to recognize the errors of the other;
first of all reminds me that I myself
have made, and make mistakes,
many times. – Pope Francis

The other day, I was visiting with a retired priest and I asked him for highlights of what he’d learned over his 50+ years in ministry. Among other things, he said:

I’m convinced most of us can’t handle much reality. We just can’t. We cocoon ourselves into a safe space, an echo chamber. We believe what suits us best. And maybe lots of that is a defense we’ve created for very good reasons that suit a purpose. And God loves us there. He’s with us no matter where we hide. The problem is we can miss out when he calls us forward, to not be afraid to face things. The truth.

We discussed that for a bit, and I asked him what he felt the antidote to that phobia of reality was. He said:

Well, for sure we need help, can’t do it alone. We need God’s help. To get out of the pits we’ve fallen in, to carry us when reality hits hard. Here’s the only place you really see we are saved by God’s grace alone and not by our own strength. Until you’re in the pit, grace is just a consoling idea. When we see we’re powerless, that’s when grace shows itself as everything. Without belief in undeserved grace, I really don’t know how you can face reality without despair.

He went on:

I also have always said, I think everyone should go to counseling or psychotherapy at some point, get in touch with your erroneous zones, as Wayne Dyer called it. Do you remember that book? [I did, my dad had it on a bookshelf when I was a kid] And this is what Confession is supposed to be — the sacrament of facing reality. Where you should be able to look at things straight on with Christ. I tell people, he’s the only absolutely safe space where you can face your own mess, others’ failures, life’s disappointments – you know, your failed response to all life throws at you.

I mentioned to him what he said reminded me of the saying of St. Silouan, “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” Facing reality at its darkest with Christ is what hope really means. We discussed this briefly, then he went on:

But you know, Tom, even if you don’t go to counseling, I believe everyone has to have a truthful person in their life, a friend, spiritual guide — someone who can listen, tell ‘em like it is. The good, the bad and the ugly. Someone you trust who knows you well enough, who’s level headed and has some good sense in them. To whom you can say the worst things, and who isn’t afraid to be totally honest with you. Who won’t blow smoke in your face. But you have to give them permission to be honest and not pout after they criticize you like a sad sack. You have to ask them now and again, “Okay, tell me the truth — how I’m doing. Anything you see I’m not seeing? Help me see reality a little clearer.” In small doses it can be a big help.

If you have someone in your life like this, you’ve found a treasure. And if you are this for someone, it’s one of the greatest acts of love. Beg God for that every day — for that person and to be that person.

Again, we discussed this and gave examples from both of our lives of this practice. Then he added one last point:

But to me, the true test for how much reality you can take is how you receive unsolicited criticism. Fair or unfair. That’s a tough one. God spare us! But it’s so important to learn from. In fact, I think it can teach you things about yourself nothing else can. Though solicited advice from a well-meaning person is better in the long run for ongoing growth, unsolicited criticism helps you see sharply your blind spots, hidden injuries and especially your vices. You know, the things God wants to enter and work on. Your critics do you a great service of pointing out what you need to show God later.

And it teaches humility, which is the virtue that disposes you to accept truth. Criticism reveals something of the character of humility. Mother Teresa said, I think, “If you’re humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”

We humans — myself included — turn those opportunities into angry self-defensive responses or resentment or calumny, or we sink into self-loathing. And so we miss the real opportunity criticism can offer.

I think this invitation to benefit from criticism might be something of what Jesus meant when he said, “Bless those who curse you.” They’re a gift in disguise.

{By a wonderful coincidence of God’s timing, within hours after I wrote the first draft of this post the other day, I was very directly confronted by someone for something I had done that they found offensive. It was intense. And it was amazing, really. The timing. It reminded me of a theology prof I had in the early 1990’s who once said to me, when I told him I felt God was calling me to teach the faith as a profession: “It’s a noble and high calling. But remember that when you teach the faith, God will exact a price and may often ask you to live through the mysteries you teach.”}