“Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep?” — Psalm 44:24

God, quite often, uses a discordant note to make a symphony. — Joe, Sky View

The tuning up of an orchestra can be itself delightful, but only to those who can in some measure, however little, anticipate the symphony. — C.S. Lewis

God likes it when you get angry and tell him what you feel to his face because he is a Father! — Pope Francis

We have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists’

[This was a stream of consciousness journal entry written after my son and I spoke about prayer late into the night]

What the ‘proofs’ prove is, at one and the same time, the existence of God and that, as said of God, we have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists.’ … Reason is rooted in our animality and it opens up into the mystery which lies unutterably beyond it, for it can, out of fidelity to its own native impulse, ask the question which it knows it could not answer, the asking being within its powers, the answering being in principle beyond them — Denys Turner

This quote captures for me a deep taproot of wonder, the sacrament of which is the question. Theology is defined by St. Anselm of Canterbury as “faith seeking understanding,” an understanding of the content of divine revelation entrusted to Israel and fully manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

Let me say a few words about “divine revelation.” The history of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, is the history of an astonished race of nomadic Semites who found themselves beset by an unexpected god, guilty of breaking and entering their world with an utterly new, completely unsought, unspeakably bizarre and thoroughly disorienting revelation. This was a god who violated all usual constraints of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon, including the territorial and celestial borders each god observed. This God of gods seemed to feel free to roam wherever he wished (which is why Jonah fled to the sea in 1:3, thinking himself safe from the land god!) and vanquished all divine competitors (as Ex. 12:12 indicates, the plagues each specifically targeted the most powerful Egyptian gods).

The Exodus effected by this Roaming Conqueror was one theologically disorienting experience for the Hebrews and Egyptians.

Think here of Moses in the Sinai desert happening on the absurd vision of a burning bush that speaks to him and commands him to return to Egypt and confront the god-king, Pharaoh. And then when Moses asks this terrifying and fascinating deity for a name, what does he find out?

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Seriously? I am? Clearly, it is a name that is at once a firm evasion of being named, evading any human claim to manipulative control of a god. This god is uncontrollable, cannot be bribed or manipulated (Deut. 10:17), because he is holy, i.e. wholly other, totally unique, completely singular, sui generis. A capital G God.

Theology is the description of the work of an exploring mind that has had opened within it a radically new capax, a “capacity” for entering into this absurdly new and uncharted field of inquiry; into the God’s real-time, living self-disclosure. And faith is the name theology gives to this remarkable new capacity given to the mind for accessing immediate knowledge of the source-less Source of all existence. In fact, faith opens the mind to immediate contact with God, mind to Mind, moving the believer from mere conceptual knowledge about God to personal knowledge of God. This is what the monk Evagrius meant when he said, “The theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Prayer is the act of faith opening the mind to God, which is another way of saying acquiring the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Jesus is God’s human mind, which is why all prayer leads us into Christ (John 14:6).

When I think of all this, I am with John:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17).

St. John of the Cross argues that the union of the mind with God through faith requires a passage through darkness and death precisely because it involves a finite mind opening up within itself an infinite capacity. In this sense, the “dark night of faith” requires a leap of surrender that gives God permission to lead us from our narrow field of vision into the “vast and silent desert” where He can cease to hide and be fully God-for-us. As Mother Teresa said it, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself: Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive him and keep him as your own.”

Prayer ensures that the theologian’s knowledge is of God; of the outside-the-box, wild and transcendent God who is source-less, beginning-less, origin-less, un-created, un-bounded. God, in an absolute way, transcends our finite experience of existence. While we would say that there is a certain likeness between God and the world He created, which gives theology something to talk about, we also affirm a greater unlikeness gives theology something to be quiet about. This is prayer in its final flowering: to contemplate mystery, to permit God full freedom in us, embarking on love’s endless quest into the inexhaustible self-disclosure of God in Christ.

So, son, if you want to pray be ready for the ride.

And don’t ever forget, all of this raucous mystery finds its sweetest fruit only in the capacity to love like Jesus; especially to love one’s enemy.

Dear God, I give you all, willingly

“Dear God, I give you all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give, I just let them take. The best is to remain quiet. Because though I may not know how to give, you know how to take. Yet I would have wished to be once, just once, magnificently generous to you!” — The Curé d’Ambricourt, referring to his parishioners

Back in 1992, I suffered severe anxiety attacks that landed me in the hospital. I remember one day in particular, after I was released from the hospital and was recuperating at home in Massachusetts, I was experiencing that terrifying sense of total inner fragmentation that accompanies extreme cases of anxiety. The edge of madness. Those who have suffered this know exactly what I am saying. I had been unable to pray for days because I was paralyzed inside, but at a certain point in the day I was able to release some pressure from the inner volcano and melted down in tears. I was finally able to pray in that space of a moment, and distinctly recall saying to God, “If you want me to surrender myself to you, I need a self to surrender! I can give nothing to you now, I have nothing to give, so I ask you: just take this away!” I settled into a peace after a minute or so, and heard a distinct phrase spring to mind with a crisp clarity, “No, take me in.”

I immediately thought, book of Revelation. So I looked up the passage this inner voice had brought to mind. Jesus says in 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” So I invited Him into my storm-battered, wind-swept tent. The winds stilled, the storm calmed. For a time. And though the storms would return again and again, I had received then and there a new insight that remained. A new grace.

He was with me in the storm, the One who, in the Garden of Agony, had suffered a cosmic panic attack in the face of death’s annihilation. He was with me. With me. Such throwaway words. Yet when unshakable Love is with you, you cease to drift haplessly and hopelessly. He was with me as the One who said, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). He who has conquered the storm, who reigns over the panic as Prince of Peace, wished to enter me. And when He entered, this King of Glory, He gathered all the fragments within, praying to His Father for me, “That they may be one as we are one” (John 17:21).

Suddenly, St. Paul’s words in Galatians 2:19-20 made all new sense to me, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

And the words of consecration flashed with new light, “Take, eat my Body; take, drink my Blood.” In the holy Eucharist, I consume Christ, “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Yes, Lord, do not take this away. Come, enter as my guest and make all things new. Amen.

Time in a Bottle

[Written last December, sat in my drafts, sent out today]

Oh, how precious time is! Blessed are those who know how to make good use of it. Oh, if only all could understand how precious time is, undoubtedly everyone would do his best to spend it in a praiseworthy manner! — Padre Pio

I woke up with a start at 3:30 a.m. with the Jim Croce song, Time in a Bottle, playing in my head. It was startling, first of all because I had not thought of the song in years, and second of all because it sounded like it was playing in my ears when I woke up.

The day before I had spent the whole day with my wife, Patti, and all four of our children (at once!), which is very rare these days. We went to a movie, ate out, and later at home told funny family stories and looked at old pictures until after midnight. As the day ended, I was filled with overflowing gratitude for this fleeting taste of what I once took for granted. Before Patti and I went to bed, I pulled up the nuptial blessing that was prayed over us by Bishop Smith on our wedding day and shared this last part with her:

May they be blessed with children,
and prove themselves virtuous parents,
who live to see their children’s children.
And grant that,
reaching at last together the fullness of years
for which they hope,
they may come to the life of the blessed
in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Through Christ our Lord.

I told Patti how sad time’s relentless passage was, and she countered with a Dr. Seuss quote — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I went to sleep struggling to gratefully offer to God, and not rue, the passing of life into memory.

So as I laid awake at 3:30 a.m. recalling the song’s lyrics, it all suddenly made sense why this particular song had come to mind in my sleep. When I was young, I always grieved the passing of happy times and fantasized about time travel so I could return and re-live good times again. I just knew I would appreciate them more next time around! I also used to daydream, when I was in my teens, about singing this song to my future wife. And now this song had come to embrace my children as well, who have come to re-define life’s meaning for me.

I wrote on a piece of paper next to my bed,

God became human to ensure that nothing in time consecrated by love is lost in eternity, and — even more! — allowed His own immutable eternity to be enriched by time, consecrated and taken up into Himself. And He who is love even takes up into Himself the loveless, drowns it in His mercy and raises it with glorious wounds. The God who IS, became. Became all things for us, to seek and save what was lost. John 1:14 touches all of time, touched yesterday.

I fell back asleep and dreamed about walking along a backwoods path in Iowa where the kids and I, back in 2008, would go on a ‘secret adventure’ early every Saturday morning. When I woke up again, I prayed my morning Suscipe and listened to the song…

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me.
To Thee, O Lord, I return it.
All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.
Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

When words fail into prayer

[repost 2015]

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words. ― Georges Bernanos

After some painful events yesterday, I sat in silence alone. Tears fell, I looked at the crucifix on the wall. No words, no prayers, just silence, tears, aching. I felt I prayed then more than I had in a long while. I recalled on my drive home my eight-day Ignatian silent retreat in 2012. My spiritual director, frighteningly wise, gave me advice on how to allow the silence to create in me a disposition to prayer. I pulled my journal up from that day. Here’s a snippet:

+ + +

Fr. John asked me to allow the silence to burn through me, to draw out from me hidden toxins, purge the noise, and re-learn the power of words. Good Lord, not sure I am ready for that. Fascinating point, he said that the real power of words before God is when they shade into inarticulate longing, pining, yearning. These are the grammar, syntax and lexicon of love. Like music without words. Articulate words, he said, we can control, use and manipulate, but longing evades conscious manipulation. God meets us at the source of our longing, which rises like a spring deep within. He mentioned what St. Paul describes in Romans 8:26 as deep prayer, the stenagmois alalētois, ‘inarticulate moaning’ prayer of the Spirit. I also thought of Jesus in Mark 15:37, his last sound was a phōnēn megalēn, a ‘loud scream.’ The Word-made-scream.

I also thought of [my wife] Patti during the first miscarriage. I sat by her side, said no words while she moaned and prayed in pain and sorrow. I felt useless, or maybe helpless and tried to share a comforting thought, but she said very forcefully, without hesitation, ‘Please don’t.’ Weeks later, she expressed her gratitude for my support, saying, ‘I just needed your presence and your hand. Sometimes words trivialize.’ Yes, becoming one flesh through our hands that day seemed to infinitely surpass the oneness of sexual intimacy. I can think of no moments in our marriage more intimate, and more terrible, than those hours. God, her echoes of God’s phōnēn megalēn in the face of death. My hand vibrated from the sound.

I also thought of that ‘last supper’ scene in [the movie] Of Gods and Men, as the monks knew the terrible fate that awaited them. Expressive faces, smiles, tears, no words.


Grateful to be so small

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

— St. Francis of Assisi

A friend of mine who is a professional philosopher sent me an email last week, in response to an email I had sent him about the importance of wonder in my life. I had said, “Days that I forget to wonder are days I fail to be grateful for the mother of all vocations: the call to exist and to revel in the unsought grace of having come into existence without having ever asked.” He wrote back, “Yup. Then you look out into the universe and get lost in gawking at the absurd magnitude of existence. Sheer excessiveness. I can only take this in fits and starts. You? It’s bloody overwhelming. Makes me grateful to be small. Gratitude at grandeur is all the greater for being small. Imagine the wonder of the Uncaused Cause? He seems to hide, maybe just to spy on our surprise. Who knows?”

Knowing people like him makes my world so much bigger.

He ended the email with this Carl Sagan quote about the tininess of earth, framed by 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Sent me soaring:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Unconditional love is hard


[Happy St. Therese’s overshadowed feast! Again, this week is a non-stopper at work so I anticipate another posting lull. Hope lives eternal and I am hoping things will soon slow down. God love you all and thanks for the beautiful and encouraging comments over this last week]

A man I know who has gone through some very difficult marital struggles over the last year sent me an email last week reflecting on their “great trial,” as he called it. I asked him if I could post snippets of that email to share the fruits of their struggle with others. Their difficulties were related to some fundamental disagreements over parenting matters and in-laws taking sides. They have three adolescent children. I edited it down a bit and cleaned up his voice-to-text gibberish.

Yeah it’s been tough between us this year. Really since last December we’ve been dealing with this whole [family matter]. It’s the closest we’ve come to feeling totally alienated from each other which let me tell you is the worst pain I’ve ever felt. We went to counseling thank God and started praying together about the whole thing and have come to a good place. We got to the root of our disagreements and have come up with some workable compromises. But man it was a bad ass ride getting there. [My wife] and I can see totally how couples who aren’t 100% about their marriage as forever could run into the wall we did and just give up. We think that if you don’t have faith in God to turn to for help, and to make “forever” make serious sense, we just don’t get how you can do it. It’s hard enough when you do have faith! Jesus talks about the difference between houses built on sand or rock and for us THAT’S IT. I know you know the storms that come can be bad bad.

The counselor helped us think of the whole parenting thing as learning to dance together. Learning each other’s weaknesses and strengths and then building on strengths to fill in for the other’s weaknesses. Team work basically. Team work when you disagree on stuff is the hardest and most important part. Which is where love gets tricky. “Love choreography” is what he called it. Hated the name but it’s right on. [The counselor] wasn’t really a man of faith but we brought our faith into it and prayed a lot. Like all the time. The dance has God’s rules to follow like forgiveness honesty humility trust, so prayer is a must. It all seemed so easy the day we got married! We would have said then our love was strong enough already. Ha! But when you settle down and get to it with real life love takes no prisoners. But it’s sweeter than ever now because it’s real. You know what I mean?

I went to our parish priest for confession at the end of all this. He was frickin awesome and pulled no punches. That’s what I need. He said God commanded me on our wedding day to love my wife more than anything in the whole world. He said no one else in life gets the promises she got from me. She should be my #1 before my parents, my job and even the kids. He said I have to decide this every day, is she #1 or not? Which means giving all I’ve got for her and not just leftovers. All that was a giant lightbulb for me. I could see I completely took her love for granted. Tom it’s really tough to admit you’ve taken your wife for granted and let other things run all over your relationship when you thought you were a great husband. Until this whole thing happened I didn’t see how I’d let everything else in my life creep in and stick her back in 2nd then 3rd then 4th place.

If you’ve got a minute there’s a video of a dancing couple I told [my wife] sums up for me the work I want to put into making her my #1. Just wish I looked as good as that dude! Damn Tom unconditional love is hard! Thank God the Sun for staying with us in the middle of it all. God rocks! Watch it if you get a minute …