The Safe Bet

“We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, ‘Surprise me.’” — from Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

I have been writing a lot recently in my personal journal about discerning God’s will. Here’s an excerpt from last weekend’s entry. The young man I describe graciously gave me permission to share this anonymously, so I slightly adjusted some details to respect this. This is a story I, and others I know, have heard innumerable times from young men and women.

+ + +

I came across a young man [a time ago] who wanted to speak to me about the paralysis he was feeling over what to do with his life. He was terrified of choosing the “wrong thing,” missing what God had, as he said, “selected” for him to do with his life. Evidently, someone had told him that if he wanted to sustain the intensity of the robust prayer life he’d developed, the “safe bet” was to become a priest or religious. His original college plan was to go into law, as he had been inspired by his grandfather’s legal career. But the “safe bet” approach had gotten lodged into his head and he now felt immobilized. This has killed not only his desire to enter law, but his desire to do anything. A law career now seemed to be an obstacle to his spiritual life, and priesthood and religious life seemed like an imposed requirement.

We talked for almost two hours, and focused on the importance of interior freedom, flanked by peace and joy, as the hallmark of vocational discernment. We talked about the need for wise counsel and self-knowledge. We also talked about distorted views of vocation, like this “safe bet” proposal, that create false dilemmas and, so, paralysis. Among other things, I said something like this:

When Jesus called Matthew to abandon his tax collector post to follow Him, Matthew followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. When Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree to abandon his unjust business practices as tax collector, and become a ‘son of Abraham’ in his home and at his tax post, Zacchaeus followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. But notice, in neither case was the standard for the decision-making the ‘safe bet’ option. The safe bet is “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). And everything human beings can do in life, save the choice of sin, contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, strength by loving neighbor.

For Matthew it meant giving up his trade to become a disciple-apostle-evangelist of Jesus, and eventually a martyr; for Zacchaeus it meant sticking with his trade, admitting openly (in front of his peers!) his injustices, remediating these four-fold, giving alms to the poor and becoming an upright tax collector who invited his fellow ‘sinners’ over dinner to do the same. In other words, vocations must be about the choice to glorify God by a life of self-less love, which is always the gist of every call of Jesus. “Pick up your cross and follow me” gives us that sense, as cross carrying is what loving in a fallen world looks like. Being called to be holy, holy, holy is to be all about other, other, other. God-neighbor. Jesus. Once you get that, discerning becomes a whole new thing, far from concerns hyper-centered on oneself. And your spiritual life does not become an end in itself, an obstacle to the freedom to respond to the inconvenient details of reality.

The million dollar vocational questions sound something like this: ‘Standing before the face of Jesus in prayer, how do I see myself best loving God by serving others with what I have to offer, in the direction my heart seems to be drawn in freedom as I reflect on the needs in the church-world around me?’; ‘What makes my heart naturally leap outward in love toward God-neighbor?’; ‘What sins might be hindering my accomplishing that?’ Then, start walking and put a smile on God’s face with the offering you make of your life.

I once encountered a priest who served in Sudan who said to me [I pulled up this quote for him on my phone]: You Americans, I’ve noticed, tend to begin the discernment of God’s will by thinking of personal fulfillment. ‘What will make me happy? Bring me a sense of fulfillment? Prosper me?’ It’s difficult to think of God’s will from that starting point. God is handcuffed. But in my village, my family, we start with: What do my people need? Or what does the church need? What do I have to offer? And if I see these match, and it’s a way for me to love best with the abilities God has given, deciding is easy. Loving God, which is doing God’s will, is found when you start with your neighbor’s needs. This is how I chose to be a priest. There was a need, I had an inclination and the gifts. I’m a priest. It was a simple decision, but not an easy one.

After we spoke, this young man said, “It’s like chains just fell off me.”

Then I pulled up an article by Peter Kreeft, and read this to him:

My first clue, based on my purely personal observation of this kind of people, is that we often get bent out of human shape by our desire—in itself a very good desire—to find God’s perfect will for us. We give a terrible testimony to non-Christians; we seem unable to relax, to stop and smell God’s roses, to enjoy life as God gives it to us. We often seem fearful, fretful, terribly serious, humorless, and brittle—in short, the kind of people that don’t make a very good advertisement for our faith.

I am not suggesting that we compromise one iota of our faith to appeal to unbelievers. I am simply suggesting that we be human. Go watch a ball game. Enjoy a drink—just one—unless you’re at risk for alcoholism. Be a little silly once in a while. Tickle your kids—and your wife. Learn how to tell a good joke. Read Frank Schaeffer’s funny novel Portofino. Go live in Italy for a while.

I said, “Just take a deep breath and relax. Or as my kids say to me, chillax dad! It’s not supposed to be this hard, brother.”

He choked up.

Then he said, “Okay, so I’m going to go to the zoo now, because I’ve loved zoos since I was a kid. And I will pray on all this there.”

“Like a visit to another world”

On August 9, 1942 Edith Stein, known in religious life as (St.) Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was brought to Auschwitz and exterminated that same day. Before being brought there, she was held at the Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands. After the end of the war, one of the guards at Westerbork testified of his encounter with her which, he said, was unforgettable. He said:

She was in the hell of Westerbork only a few days, walking among the prisoners, talking and praying like a saint. Yes, that’s what she was. That’s the impression which this elderly woman gave, though, on the other hand, she seemed quite young. She spoke in such a clear and humble way that anybody who listened to her was seized. A talk with her was like a visit to another world.

Condensed in every detail of this brief account is a powerful description of sanctity. Other testimonies by those who encountered her in the last weeks of her life described her love and attentive care for others in the camp. I know I’ve shared this here before, but when I was working at Gift of Peace in Washington, D.C. and Mother Teresa came to visit, she gave a brief talk to the volunteers during which she defined a saint as “one in whose presence it’s easy to believe in God.” She encouraged all the Sisters and volunteers to take on this noblesse oblige as their principle mission in life. I have always thought hers was the most succinct and actionable description of holiness I’ve ever heard, as it captures the unique priestly vocation of humanity in creation to mediate God to the world and the world to God.

This is exactly what Stein meant when she wrote, at the onset of the war, “The nation [of Germany] doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.” What are we? The question that fills libraries. St. Paul opines in 2 Cor. 5:17: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Anyone who reads my work knows “new creation” is a keyword for me, and the discovery of its depth over the last ten or so years has turned my world upside down.

I actually remember the particular moment when it first overtook my imagination. I had just seen The Passion of the Christ the night it was released in the theater. You may recall the scene when Jesus fell as He was carrying the cross, and was met by Mary. It’s a visceral scene, but the line Jesus spoke to her absolutely took me apart: “See, mother, I make all things new.” I saw like lightning in that moment that it is indeed love that re-creates all things, and the Passion was the zenith of divine-human love. And I saw, in that regard, the deepest meaning of the eucharistic Words of Institution was to be found in their character as words of selfless love. As Midas’ touch turned all to gold, love’s touch claims earth for heaven.

In the “new heavens and new earth” (Rev. 21:1), all things will be fully transparent to divine glory. Presently, in the “sacramental economy,” God’s glory is manifest “in a mirror dimly, but then [in the new creation] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Here, by the act of faith, we encounter God through the mediation of signs that both reveal and conceal God in creation. But in the new creation sacramental signs will all pass away, all temple veils will be torn and only what is wholly translucent to God’s light will be admitted (Rev. 21:27) — which is another way of saying the first three petitions of the Our Father (i.e. sanctify thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven) will be fulfilled.

We wait in hope for the future coming of this new creation (2 Pet. 3:13). But St. Paul also told us something absolutely remarkable, right? “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Heaven is not something we simply wait to “go to.” Rather, when we freely consent to God bringing about His Name-kingdom-will, we trigger heaven’s coming to be wedded to earth. Saints “thin out” the distance between the old and new creations, inaugurating (or hastening!) the passing over of this world into the next. Maranatha! Saints are effective signs who permit the Absolute Future of eternity to crash into time’s present here and now, consecrating it in a manner analogous to transubstantiation. Relics are the remains of consecrated matter left behind by the saint.

“She was in the hell of Westerbork.” Like the New Jonah, saints are especially called to traverse enemy territory (Luke 6:27-36), even into the abyss, where the distance between heaven and earth is greatest. There, they are planted as seeds of the Kingdom whose cross-bearing and dying, whether white or red, germinates and bears a super-abundant yield for the life of the world in God’s time (John 6:51; 12:24). St. Teresa Benedicta was such a seed of the new creation, planted in the hell of Westerbork, or of Auschwitz, which is why “a talk with her was like a visit to another world.”

Another world, yes, a heaven that is so other from the world of hell on earth.

During an exorcism, the devil said to St. John Vianney, “If there were three like you on earth, my kingdom would be destroyed.” St. John was a humble, simple man who achieved greatness by being radically faithful to his vocation to be a man of prayer and to sacrificially love his people as a parish priest. So, before concerning ourselves with programs, plans and strategies for saving the world, we must become the goal we seek to achieve in the world around us (Matt. 5:48). If we become who we were made to be, who we are called to be, bit by bit, we let God be God, giving Him free reign in us to renew the face of the earth.

“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint” (Léon Bloy).

Velle, “Will it.”

“Speaking the truth in love” Ephesians 4:15

“Rabbinic debate”

[this was an email I sent to someone who recently asked me for advice on “how to win an argument”. Seemed good to post on the feast of St Dominic, the Veritas saint!]

“Truth happens in the course of dialogue. There is always a temptation to allow our answers to bring to an end the process of searching, as if the topic of the conversation was a problem that has now been solved. But when a fresh question arrives, the unexhausted depths of mystery show through once more. Let it be said over and over again: faith is not a question of problems but of mystery, so we must never abandon the path of seeking and asking.” ― Tomáš Halík

I had a philosophy professor, when I first began my graduate work, who would never affirm anything a student said but would always immediately qualify, critique or expand on each answer. I remember being so frustrated by this! In fact, I remember one time when, in my emotional exasperation, I threw caution to the wind. Right after I’d given what I was certain was the right answer, he began with his, “Well, it’s important not to…” I just blurted out, “Come on, Dr. Heisenberg, can’t you ever just say ‘good answer’ and leave it at that?” He replied, “And what would you learn, then? That you have the whole truth and that settles it all? How boring! Then the dialogue would end. No one ever has it all. We’re always on the way.” Then he taught us a medieval scholastic axiom. “In any argument,” he said, “seldom affirm or deny and always make distinctions. In other words, rarely say, ‘That settles it!’ or ‘You’re wrong!’, but discover the portion of truth in what is said and set it on a journey toward greater things. That way, you keep the relationship alive with your dialogue partner, and you reaffirm your commitment to learning more. We’re always on the way.”

I wanted to explode.

Here I could see — after I calmed my pride — for the first time the deeper meaning of another medieval scholastic axiom he taught us, Amor ipse notitia est, “love itself is a form of knowing.” The quest for knowledge, if it is done well, should cultivate love between fellow seekers. When carried out thus, arguments should augment friendship. The goal of an argument should not be, “I won!” or “You won!” but “truth has appeared,” which for lovers of truth is a cause for common rejoicing and gratitude. What each sought all along has now been found and is the possession of both. Triumph! But if truth-seeking is undertaken merely as a pursuit of private property or becomes a manipulative vying for the upper hand, making of knowledge a commodity and not a common good, then dialogue will always devolve into a competition and “victory” will always mean the defeat of love.

Whether in philosophy or theology, this approach has taught me not to view apologetics as the hunt for a silver bullet or a slam-dunk argument meant to silence my opponent. Rather, apologetics is to be a method for cultivating and sustaining in every conversation a common quest for truth’s appearing. This is, in fact, how God deals with us. When He becomes flesh to invite us into all Truth, and we responded with the counter-argument of the cross, He rose again only to re-extend the invitation in merciful love to join Him in an eternal friendship, exploring the fullness of Truth that sets us free.

There was a woman I knew in Florida, an atheist who converted to Catholicism, who shared with me what her impetus was for converting. She said, “William [a work colleague] gave me my first real exposure to intelligent Christianity. But what was most convincing about him was that he took my own arguments against his positions very seriously. And you know, when you believe someone is willing to listen to you and learn from you, when you disagree, you’re much more likely to return the favor. That’s rare. And I did.” Pope Benedict’s words make this point well:

Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity

This approach to any and all arguments, I have found, holds out the highest hope of forging out of difference philo-sophia, a love of wisdom that fosters friendship. And Truth is very interested in friendship (John 15:15). The sweetest debates I have ever had are still ongoing, with men and women who share this commitment and have allowed friendship to emerge from disagreement. When what is sought is not conquest but Christ, who is Truth, the end-game is always the victory of charity. If we follow His example, every time we get in an argument we would do well to begin washing each other’s feet as we argue, so as to maintain the focus on truth’s service to love.

Amor vincit omnia, “Love conquers all.”

Enter the Mystery

Today’s feast of the Transfiguration this year falls on a Sunday. What a gift!

I am sitting outside of the seminary during a torrential thunderstorm waiting for it to subside. It’s dark and the car is shaking. I am looking at this icon thinking of the scene in the Sunday Gospel. The three “core group” disciples, having just scaled a high mountain with Jesus, are suddenly overcome by this stunning vision of their Master suffused with blinding light, flanked by Moses and Elijah, overshadowed by the “bright cloud” of the Spirit and deeply shaken by the sound of the Father’s thundering voice commanding obedience to His Son’s teaching. This is a full-fledged theophany, an appearing of the deepest secret of God: Tri-unity abiding in our flesh.

The first reading from the Mass today punctuates the awesomeness of what is being manifest here on the mountain, the mystery that roars ceaselessly in heaven: the Ancient of Days, from whom uncreated fire ceaselessly surges, around whom all of creation is arrayed in worship and by whom all things are judged. In the moment of the Transfiguration, Jesus permitted the disciples to glimpse what is always true of Him as “God from God, Light from Light.” Terrifying and fascinating all at once. God.

The disciples in the icon bear the proper posture before a vision of God: free-falling. As Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī said so well, “to know God one must sell cleverness and purchase bewilderment.” Along with these three disciples, Moses, who spoke to God on the mountain “face to face” (Ex. 33:11), and Elijah, who hid his face at God’s appearing on a mountain (1 Kings 19:13) today invite us, through the sacred Scriptures, to prayerfully encounter the the human Face of God, Jesus Christ.

Dare to enter the mystery.

Spirituality of Offering

I can’t sleep, so I will write…

I am preparing a talk for next week on (as always) a spirituality of the laity suited to their secular mission to “consecrate the world itself to God,” as Vatican II says it. Whenever I enter into this doctrine, it completely alters my experience of life for days after thinking it through in prayer. It’s like I’ve shuffled through the Wardrobe into Narnia for a time, and came back.

At the root of this spirituality, I am convinced more and more, is a “spirituality of offering.” This is in fact the sum and substance of our baptismal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), as priests’ mission is to consecrate the “stuff of life” and render it sacrificial, offering it up to the Most High. The whole spiritual life finds its vibrant epicenter here, as humanity was placed by God in creation to enact this most sacred transaction between heaven and earth. Being a unity of both matter and spirit, we are each a microcosm of two vastly different realms, perishable and imperishable. We are made of stardust stamped with the likeness of the Heavenly Spirit. Our bodies are the product of billions of years of cosmic star-death and resurrection, and as priests of the new covenant we draw this whole cycle of violent history into the Incarnate God’s own death and resurrection, that He might breathe peace on all things and transfigure them into the immortal glory of His divine-human life.

At the Transfiguration, Jesus, standing atop a high mountain to behold the vast horizons of creation, revealed in His priestly body our future glory. In Him, eternity has already penetrated into the very heart of the earth. He is the truest Heart of microcosmic Man, and in Him the divine Light blazes not downward on Him from above, but outward from within Him. Think of the image of the Sacred Heart. At the conception of God in the womb of Mary, the divine Fire moved from the foot of Sinai into the heart of the world. And those of us joined to Jesus by faith and baptism extend this conception of the divine Fire to the whole of creation (Mark 16:15) and permit it to soak deeper and deeper into the entire created order, penetrating even down into the dominion of hell with the dawning light of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The laity, called by God to sanctify the world “from within” by entering every corner of secular life – marriage and family, culture, politics, education, science, business, economics, etc. – effect this priestly transaction of consecration and up-offering by “doing the world” according the God’s will. Acting in justice and integrity, humility and courage, kindness and patient endurance; facing life’s hardships in faith; carrying out the works of mercy; spreading joy and hope; defending the defenseless and giving voice to the voiceless; and every other such manner of being upright in a fallen world – this renders the time and space we bodily inhabit, holy. “For justice is undying” (Wisdom 1:15).

Above all this offering is carried out in the spirit of ceaseless prayer, that priestly colloquy between God and man in which the Spirit is called down on all things and our sacrifice offered up to the Father in, with and through Christ. Creation looks to us, her priests, to voice her praise to the Creator and to rescue her from the bonds of death by joining her agony to our hope:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:15-19).

Every moment of history, every tiny plot of earth we trod longs to be claimed for Heaven by us who bear, on behalf of all and for all, the immortal Fire within. Who bear love. Next time you can climb a mountain, take these words of Rainer Maria Rilke with you and recite them loudly to all you see:

And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within – oh endlessly – within us! Whoever we may be at last.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

And then go to Mass and hand all of it over to the Celebrant, who will complete your consecration and offering, and then command you: Go, be sent! And gospelize the world some more…

“Pray out of your pain”

Back in the late 1980’s, I attended an Orthodox church for Sunday liturgy fairly consistently. The congregation was composed of a wide variety of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Greeks, Georgians, Serbs and Russians. The vast majority were first or second generation immigrants from the Soviet Union, and many of these had fled religious persecution. The priest was second generation Russian. Being Roman Catholic, it was for me like being in another world each week I was there, both in terms of the lavish Eastern liturgy and the ethnic-cultural distance between me and them. And for all that I was greatly enriched.

One thing that came up frequently in conversation was the character of Christian faith in countries where belief was tagged with a high cost. People, especially the older women, would make me vividly aware of how different their view of life was because of all they and their families had to endure back in the U.S.S.R. I especially remember one conversation I had with an elderly Siberian woman. That day there was a visiting priest who was newly ordained, and he had preached a fiery homily on the upcoming Great Week (their Holy Week). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. After the liturgy in the social hall, I was speaking with this matushka and asked her if she liked his preaching. She said, with steely eyes looking straight into mine:

It was pretty. Yes. But he does not know of what he speaks. He has not yet suffered. You Americans, no offense, but you do not know how to suffer. You seem to see pain as something to run from. That makes you shallow. Pain is unavoidable and depth of soul requires suffering. It digs down, no? We Russians, we know suffering. And it makes of us both angels and demons, one or the other depending whether you have love or not. And we have many demons in Russia now because there is little love with the Communists.

Although at the time I found her words off-putting, over the years I see more and more the radical truth of what she said. I myself stood and stand indicted. I later shared her words with the Orthodox pastor at this parish and he said he considered this woman to be a staritsa (wise elder) and a saint. He said, “If you want to learn how to pray, ask her. She is prayer. I sought her out when I first arrived here, on the advice of the deacon, and she told me: ‘Father, when you can make your pain a prayer, when you learn to groan with the Spirit, to pray in agony with Jesus, you know pure prayer. Everything is to become prayer, but pain speaks to God most eloquently. Like arrow prayers. Don’t pray always your pain away. Pray out of your pain. Through your pain. Don’t fear it.” He then shared with me the quote from the Russian saint deeply loved in the Orthodox world, Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not.”

Fr. Walter J. Ciszek was a Jesuit priest who suffered unspeakable hardships during the 23 years he endured forced hard labor, psychological torture and abuse in Russian prison camps. His autobiographical book, He Leadeth Me, is a stunning spiritual treasury that I recommend to all who are trying to relate faith and suffering. I will leave you with a few of his words as a concluding meditation in keeping with the treasury of Russian spiritual wisdom:

Although, as God, he needed no glorification, as man, he did bring about the glorification of his human body through his final suffering. He rose because He died; he was glorified because he suffered. He could have had the glory and the peace and the unending joy in his body at any time, because he was God and he had a right to it. But the fact remains that he had none of these things until after he suffered. We have many, many examples from the life of Christ, but there is none greater than his suffering. He taught you and me how to live with it. If he cried, cannot we? If he showed hurt in his life, cannot we? If he begged to be relieved, cannot we? If he even complained to God, will God punish us if, in the midst of our hurt or pain, we complain to him, Our Father? No.

If we can surrender to such a prayer in truth, we can dare pray Psalm 22 with the Jews:

Trust in an unseen God-made-visible

Each year, thousands of men, women and children are innocent victims of sexual and organ trafficking, and it seems that we are so accustomed to seeing it as a normal thing. This is ugly, it is cruel, it is criminal! I would like to draw on everyone’s commitment to make this aberrant plague, a modern form of slavery, adequately countered. Let us pray together the Virgin Mary to support the victims of trafficking and to convert the hearts of traffickers. — Pope Francis

I spoke with a woman not long ago who has worked with a faith-based outreach to teenage youth victimized by the sex-trafficking industry. I have read articles and listened to presentations on the topic over the years, but every time I meet someone who is personally involved in this kind of work it shakes me to the core. History has demonstrated again and again that there lurks in humanity a dark and perverse drive toward enslaving fellow human beings for pleasure, power and profit.

The Hebrew’s story in Egypt is humanity’s story, and the words God spoke to Moses from the Bush were spoken over all ages:

I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters;
I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them
out of the hand of the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:7-8).

The Hebrew story is also the Christian story, as these “words of God” became flesh and tented among us. Hear in this section of the Nicene Creed striking resonances of the above Exodus text:

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

In Jesus, God “became man” not only “in accordance with the Scriptures,” but in accordance with the the entire human experience — even into bowels of hell, as the Apostles Creed starkly puts it, “He descended into hell.”

This woman I spoke with said something really profound about these young people’s plight in relation to God:

It is difficult to trust in an unseen God when what is visible appears to destroy any chance of redemption.

As she shared with me over an hour and a half’s time the details her faith-based approach to this work, and some of the extraordinary stories of how it brings hope in a hopeless place, I remembered my own experience 25 years ago working with the Missionaries of Charity. Specifically, I remembered this one young woman I came to know who had been sex-trafficked and was dying of HIV-AIDS when I met her. She said that she believed God had brought her to live with the Sisters before she died “to protect me from the men.”

“To protect me.” That phrase burned itself deeply into my memory and convinced me with new force that this was indeed the core mission of the Church in the world, to be God’s rescue made visible and audible. To extend the Incarnation and be Yeshua, “Yah rescues.” And Yah, an abbreviated form of the divine Name, Yahweh, is etymologically derived from the Name revealed to Moses from the Bush, “I Am” (Ex 3:14). The rescuing God is, and He is with us saying to every Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

1 John 1:1-4 exquisitely captures this mission that flows from the Incarnation of the Word:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship [koinōnia] with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I know a man who had a “near death experience” after suffering a grave cardiac event in his early 30’s, and after he’d recounted to me the remarkable specifics of what he had seen and heard, he said: “I know this probably sounds like wishful thinking, but I am convinced that if everyone had one of these experiences, and saw and heard what I did, there would be no more wars or violence or starvation. When you’re there you realize absolutely nothing matters — and I mean nothing — but love.” Then he said, “But what I realized after this happened was that we already have all of this in our faith. But like Jesus said [Luke 16:31], it’s never that simple.” I added, “Yup, makes me think of G.K. Chesterton’s satirical quip, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.'”

The world is teeming with God’s glory, but sin and ignorance conceal its vision from our eyes, its music from our ears. Faith, hope and love give us the liberated, liberating capacity to see and hear again, and the imperative — “Go!” — to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, liberty to captives by declaring in word and deed what we have seen and heard. The church is, as I once said here, the manifestation of the eternal God’s irrepressible ‘freaking out’ in our history to build a home for humanity to dwell in with Him; in safety.

This woman I spoke with also said, “And everything we do is soaked in prayer.” Indeed. And so we cry out unsparingly day and night to God in the face of all forms of slavery, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” (Is. 64:1).

Through me.

Let’s try.