Good secrets “for you” to keep

Do acts of mercy in secret. Just do some good things that no one knows about. — Fr. Tom Hopko

There’s a tension in the Gospel between Jesus’ command to do good in public so others can see it and glorify God (Matt. 5:16) and the command do good in secret so only God sees it (Matt. 6:2-5).

The resolution of this tension is to be found in the intention of the do-gooder: why do you do what you do?

For Jesus, the only authentic intention of the disciple is summed up in the twofold commandment: love of God and love of neighbor. Love, which is willing the good of neighbor and the glory of God, takes us out of ourselves, out of our proclivity toward wound-licking and naval-gazing, and reorients us toward God and neighbor. The music of love takes as its refrain the words Jesus spoke as He consecrated the bread and wine: “…this is my Body which will be given up for you…my Blood…shed for you and for many…”

In those simple words is a revolution, as “my” is out-turned and placed in service to “you.” For those who dare to eat this Bread and drink this Cup, any and every claim to what is mine is immediately placed in service to the well-being of others and the glory of God (which is really saying the same thing).  If I say this is “my body” or “my money” or “my home,” the Christian conscience obliges me at once to consider in what way God wishes me to rightly place those gifts I hold in my possession in service to the common good.

There’s no mistake that we call the bread and wine, after they have been transformed under the force of Jesus’ words “…for you…”, the Real Presence. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Doing good for others in secret is a wonderful asceticism for disciplining our broken tendency to turn everything back on ourselves. This is especially true when we do secret good for those who do not do good to us (Matt. 5:46). The early Fathers often counseled fasting and praying for one’s enemies without ever making it known. The frequent practice of secret mercies and kindnesses can also help prepare us for handling our public good deeds when they get praised. Not by mere protestations of pious humility — “No, really, it’s all God” [btw: no it’s not, it’s cooperating with grace] — but by very naturally experiencing an inner gratitude that you were able to benefit someone else and so manifest the glory of the God who is love. The joy of praise is found in its acknowledgment that love is the true measure of all things.

My spiritual director of 25 years ago used to say to me, “If anyone praises you for this or that, remind yourself: ‘How much God must love them to give me these gifts.’ It’s not about you. Gifts are ‘about you’ only inasmuch as they’re about those they were given for.” He continued, “The day that this thought naturally occurs to you when you are praised is the day you’ll know you’ve tasted real humility.”

Still waiting.

A number of years ago some unknown person began paying for our utilities every month, and would send us gift cards in the mail to a local grocery store. We tried every way of finding out who they were to thank them, but we were never able to. One of my children said, “Makes me want to be a better person knowing there’s someone like that out there.”

Yes. Glory to God, the hidden Giver of all gifts.

Liturgy and Concerts

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Left to right: Sydney and Maria

Another spontaneous post in my blog hibernation.

I’ve been to a number of music concerts over the years — rock, classical, jazz, country, sacred — and have always found them to be powerful experiences that leave lasting effects. A number of years ago, I wrote an amateur paper on the similarities between liturgy and music concerts. I’ll share with you here a few simple thoughts from that paper.

To make it a little more lively, less theoretical, I will steal some illustrative quotes from a dear friend of my daughter Maria, named Sydney, who wrote some wonderful and raw reflections on her experience of a Twenty One Pilots concert she, Maria and some friends went to in early July out in Woodlands, Texas. Sydney is a lovely, ebullient and smart young lady who has a beautiful faith and a heart for the homeless. She and her friends all go to Mount Carmel Academy, so today I give a special shout out to all the MCA Cubs on this feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel!

I used three words to organize my reflections in the paper: community, transcendence and transformation.

Community: Liturgy (in the most general sense) is meant to be an experience of binding, of being joined to God and the community of saints, along with the gathered faithful in an intimate experience of worship and encounter. Those who enter into the liturgical act are joined, in all their wild diversity, by a common faith, hope and love; by the harmony of words, music and gestures; and by symbols that express a common identity. Worshipers are united around a “celebrant,” the presider who embodies, mediates and gives voice to a unifying center: the drama of God saving us in Christ. Around the celebrant, who is a sacramental sign of Christ, all are made one. Good liturgy should leave people feeling more fully joined to God and to the community of faith. It should ground and solidify their sense of identity as they depart out the church doors into a fragmented world.

The music concert, from the Latin verb concertare, “bring into agreement,” is also an experience of binding, of being joined with fellow concert goers (“fans”) in the power and beauty and energy of music and its message. Fans, like the faithful, have given something of themselves over to the musical culture created by the musicians, as they find it both expresses and gives shape to their own experience and understanding of life. The performers, who become “larger than life” as they celebrate the musical event, embody, mediate and give voice to music’s transcendent and unifying power. Good performers make you sense they understand your world personally and intimately, and by their authenticity, allow you into their world. The musical concert becomes a form of communion and gives those who may feel alone in the world a sense of belonging.

After what felt like hours of anxious waiting, the screens on the sides of the stage that showed ads clicked off, and the screams from the adoring and dedicated fans amplified. We could see a shadow of a figure lying on the ground on the stage, which we had reason to believe was Tyler. He was reaching his hand out to the audience, almost as if he wished we were experiencing what he was experiencing. The dark shadow of his hand diminished gradually, and all I wanted was for it to return. Not even 30 seconds later, the arm’s shadow returned. It was once again reaching out to the audience. He stood up and walked away, leaving me wanting a lot more than an arm.

Transcendence: Liturgy is meant to take us “beyond” ourselves, to lift us from our self-contained isolation out into an expansive world revealed to the faithful by faith and longed for by hope. In liturgy we are lifted up into the “heavenly” world of a God who is both infinitely beyond us and radically near to us, and who loves us and desires our love. We are also drawn out of ourselves in liturgy into the “earthly” world of a universal church, a community of faithful who share our search for God’s FarNear divine love. Liturgy unites heaven and earth, reconciles us to one another and is ecstatic, from the Greek ek-stasis, to “stand outside oneself.” Liturgy pulls us out of the flat dimensions of the mundane, pokes holes in our low ceilings and empowers us to re-see ordinary life in the light of transcendent realities encountered in the celebration of the liturgy. Liturgy awakens in us awe and amazement.

The music concert also takes us beyond ourselves into an ecstatic experience, as performers use their music to sweep us up and out into a vast world of transcendent beauty and impassioned meaning. Performers, and their art, appear before us on stage as multidimensional symbols proclaiming transcendent truths and enacting dramatic and paradoxical tensions, appearing before us as larger-than-life and at once very near to us. The sounds and lyrics, the choreography and visual effects, the costumes and facial expressions of the performers all combine to draw fans out of themselves and into a new world of imagination and meaning created and revealed by their art. It is in these dizzying tensions that pulse between the Far and the Near, the familiar and the strange, that the concert’s greatest power lies; a power that disposes fans to receive the music’s transformative power.

…we sat in our seats in the pavilion in Woodlands, Texas, which were in the middle area of the back section, but they weren’t totally in the back because there were people on the lawn behind us. There were two opening bands who were very unique and cool sounding. tøp [twenty one pilots] was set to start at 8:45 PM, so we were all waiting in anticipation for that moment to come. After the opening bands, very ominous music was playing, making my anxiety rise even higher. There was an intense red light, which lit up an entire piece of cloth that was shielding what the crew was doing onstage to set up for twenty one pilots. Either Swan or Nina realized that there was a mini stage with a piano and drums about 25 feet in front of us. I was in complete shock/awe that Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph would be that close to me and my friends who have been loving them for so long.

…One of the most memorable moments, although there were plenty, was when the self-titled album medley was performed. I would say the stage they performed the medley and “Ode To Sleep” on was about was about 20-25 feet from us. It was something I had only pictured happening in my dreams, and it was happening right there, 20 feet in front of me. Through all the sweat from the 90º+ heat, I managed to have the best experience possible.

Transformation: Every liturgy should leave one’s perception of reality changed, adjusted more nearly to the vision of faith revealed and enacted in the liturgical celebration. Every aspect of liturgy, from Word and song to ritual gestures and vestments, should dispose the worshiper to the experience of a deeper communion with God and the faithful; to receive the dynamic and incarnate grace of God made present to all those gathered in the celebration. Liturgy should leave you thinking and feeling differently about everything (the meaning of metanoia/conversion), in a way that leads to a reformation of your way of life to one in closer conformity to the vision of faith.

Music possesses an unparalleled ability to open up, enter and shape both mind and heart, to stir up inner regions of deep feeling and inspire the loftiest of sentiments. For good or for ill, music gives expression, interprets and reveals the human experience of reality in a manner that surpasses mere words or ideas. Music can take words and ideas and confer on them a staggering power to journey deep into the inner self, drenching emotions and imagination, and planting its contents firmly into the identity-bearing memory. During a music concert, the senses are saturated with a diverse array of sights and sounds, smells and vibrations, which amplify the music’s power to influence devoted fans who believe these performers offer to them something true, beautiful and good.

…During the self-titled album medley, they were performing “Addict With A Pen,” and one of the lines in the song is “you hear me screaming father,” and on the word “father,” Tyler looked up instinctively, like he is used to looking up when speaking to the Lord. Writing this is giving me chills, and I certainly had chills, mixed with my sweat and tears at the concert.

…This band never ceases to amaze me. The last best part of the concert, although the whole thing was amazing, was when Tyler climbed up on a ladder that was in the middle of the pavilion and stood on a platform to perform “Car Radio.” He did this for maybe the whole second half of the song. He was once again extremely close to us, and I spoke/sang every lyric of that song with such purpose because it was the first song I ever heard by them in the summer of 2014, and it quickly became my favorite. The performance of every song was everything I have ever imagined and more.

This is why I so clearly appreciate Twenty One Pilots, as they offer a contemporary art form that gives those who have ears to hear the opportunity to be united in a quest for the FarNear and transformed by a message of hope.

I’ll leave you with a video clip from that concert. It’s the performance of Ode to Sleep. Thanks, Sydney, for letting me share with my readers your sprightly, heartfelt and passionate insights!

Misfits and Heathens

The Christian message is transmitted by embracing those in difficulty, by embracing the outcast, the marginalized and the sinner.– Pope Francis

As I said, every now and then I will throw a post out here. And I couldn’t sleep last night. Perfect combo for a soul-calming writing session.

The release of the new Twenty One Pilots song, Heathens, in the last two weeks made posting irresistible. But instead of offering a direct commentary on the lyrics, I will tell you a story and allow you — if you’re game — to think about the song through that story. Like entering a poem, allow the somewhat enigmatic lyrics to paint your mind with imaginative colors.

By a remarkable coincidence, this story was relayed to me shortly before the song was released, which is why I made the immediate association.

I met a young man, in his mid twenties, who shared with me his story of being, and feeling, alienated from the church. I thought it was an extremely insightful story and he graciously gave me permission to share the outlines of that story. My kids think it’s very strange when I ask people if I can write on what they tell me, so I try not to ask when they are in earshot.

We started talking outside a convenience store where he worked after I had asked him to help me get the air pump to work. He asked me what I did (I had a suit on) and I told him I worked at a seminary. After we had a brief conversation about what I do for the seminary, he asked if he could share with me an insight for priests. I told him I would be grateful to hear what he had to say and would certainly put his wisdom to good use. I’m telling you, it is amazing how people open up when you tell them you work for the church.

He was diagnosed in his early twenties with a social anxiety disorder, and had lived his late childhood and adolescent years in a fairly abusive social environment. Terribly sad. He seemed like a bright young man. After going through some very dark times in his early twenties, he was able to work out of his major issues and secure a steady job working at a convenience store in a management position. And he’s now dating a girl, his very first girlfriend. His parents were Sunday Catholics, but not especially religious. His mom tried very hard when he was fifteen to get him involved in parish youth group when she saw he was withdrawing from social interactions and losing himself in online gaming. Here’s my summary of what I recall he said to me in our hour long conversation (with details left fuzzy for anonymity):

The youth group I attended was a very cliquey group, even though they seemed like nice kids. They were all very social and outgoing. I wasn’t. And all the activities they did were for people like them. After a few times, I told my mom I would never go again. It was too painful for me. They were all happy and smiling and knew each other and could talk about Jesus and God so easily, but for me it was all so totally not me. It was like listening to someone speaking another language to you. You hear all the sounds but you don’t know what any of it means. And they talk to you without any care you don’t speak their language. When you don’t know what to say, they just are like, “oh-kay,” and awkwardly walk away. I mean, they don’t realize how different our worlds are. I’m not blaming them. It is what it is.

For me, I had found my world of acceptance online in [I forgot the name of the forums he mentioned], where social misfits gathered and shared their hatred of most pop culture and of Christians. Most of people in these forums are agnostics or atheists. Pop culture is all about everything we weren’t (cool, attractive, social), and serious Christians seemed live this facade of smiley happiness and everything’s great and Jesus loves you and there are no problems. That’s what it seemed like. And we’re all like, “My life’s shit and you don’t have room for us.”

But what totally pushed me off the edge in that youth group was when this one kid said — I’m sure he meant well — “Hey, you don’t look like you know Jesus loves you. You gotta smile, man! Cheer up! Have fun! The joy of the Lord!” I was like, screw you dude. You don’t know what my life’s like. And you don’t care. I went home really angry and went straight online and bitched about this and everybody was totally with me. They all raged on the Christians. “Love! Yeah, love each other but not the f-ing freaks!”

In that [online] world I could feel accepted and be myself and feel important. But I thought to myself, God’s still important to me. I wish there was somebody like me out there, but who doesn’t want to ditch God. Wish there was a place for people like us. And I eventually grew to hate the negativity on these forums. It was all toxic. We were unified over our hatred of the rest of the world of normal people, who ran everything. But we ran this world online. It was our kingdom.

I’ve come a long way since then. I got help, got out of that online world because it was so poison and I’m beginning to find a place for my faith now, ten years later. And I’m almost back to church every week now, because when I went to church at Christmas with my parents the priest, as we were walking out, asked me my name and shook my hand and smiled and said, “Thanks for coming” which totally amazed me. That was like the best thing I could have heard.

So here’s what I’d tell you to tell the priests. They need to make sure they look out for the kids who walk around with their heads down, who walk funny, who don’t know how to hold a conversation, who get lost in the crowd. Just let them know you care. Maybe there’s nothing you can do for them socially, like getting them involved in a group, because they’re socially awkward and they probably won’t do it. But make sure everyone at your church who’s responsible for making young people feel welcome, that they don’t forget these kids. And that when they give their sermons, they need to speak about how God can mean something to someone who feels very isolated and alone. And how Jesus is not just for attractive and happy and successful and outgoing people, but for everyone. That even a misfit can fit in.

Wow.

The video (which has scenes from the movie, Suicide Squad, which the song features in), with lyrics below:

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse
All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

Welcome to the room of people
Who have rooms of people that they loved one day
Docked away
Just because we check the guns at the door
Doesn’t mean our brains will change from hand grenades
You’re lovin’ on the psychopath sitting next to you
You’re lovin’ on the murderer sitting next to you
You’ll think, “How’d I get here, sitting next to you?”
But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

We don’t deal with outsiders very well
They say newcomers have a certain smell
Yeah, I trust issues, not to mention
They say they can smell your intentions
You’re lovin’ on the freakshow sitting next to you
You’ll have some weird people sitting next to you
You’ll think “How did I get here, sitting next to you?”
But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget
(Watch it, watch it)

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
(Watch it)
Wait for them to ask you who you know
(Watch it)
All my friends are heathens, take it slow
(Watch it)
Wait for them to ask you who you know
(Watch it)

Why’d you come, you knew you should have stayed
(It’s blasphemy)
I tried to warn you just to stay away
And now they’re outside ready to bust
It looks like you might be one of us

Now and again

Dear Readers:

At last my new blog routine has begun. I will only post infrequently, as I concentrate on turning my work here into publishable material. If you would like to be made aware of new posts when they come be sure to sign up for the emailed version –>

Thank you to all readers of Neal Obstat. What gratitude I feel in my heart for so many of you who have chosen to open your minds and hearts to my words. We pray for one another. God be with you.

I will leave you with my second favorite Twenty One Pilots song, Trees (#1 is The Tear in My Heart). It is a simply profound exploration of the heart of prayer: sinful humanity emerging from hiding to face God and say, “Hello.” I will offer no more commentary than to quote Genesis 3:8-10:

And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

My Forever Joy

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2103/14 re-post — My favorite post of all.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. — Song of Songs 8:6-7

In our third year of marriage, I wrote my wife a poem that I would like to share here. She gave me permission.

I wrote it as a meditation on St. Bonaventure’s contention, not shared by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the covenant bond of sacramental marriage endures even beyond the grave. Though no longer a sacrament in the next world, and no longer sexual, something of the unique bond of marital love remains in the new creation. This position is an open opinion, a matter of theological speculation (what is called a theologoumenon, which is just the best word ever), and is not a defined article of faith.

St. Bonaventure says that marriage, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Paradise, bears within it the indelible mark of three mysteries: (1) the three-in-one Trinitarian communion of Persons, (2) the union of human and divine natures in Christ and (3) the covenant bond of Christ with his Bride, the Church. What a subject for prayer for a couple to reflect on together! Together they embody and communicate to all of creation these “deep things of God” (1 Cor.2:10), all in the midst of day to day nothings, small gestures of love and fidelity. Marriage is a sacramental nexus where God’s boundless self-emptying love and humanity’s bounded and muddling expressions of love coincide. No wonder marriage is so volatile!

Marriage was created and re-created by God to be a singularly thin and translucent window into His life-giving mystery — for the spouses, for their children and for all humanity. If “to love another person is to see the face of God,” then what kind of vision of God is possible when I choose to love another person in a most absolute, radical and final way? To see, touch, hear, smell and taste your spouse in faith is to see, touch, hear, smell and taste the beauty, goodness, fidelity, love, life and terribly disconcerting nearness of God incarnate. In the words of Gaudium et Spes:

Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect…

The Eastern Orthodox Churches, at least in their canonical-legal tradition, take the “radical monogamy” teaching very seriously. They view a subsequent marriage that follows a first valid sacramental marriage as a concession to human weakness. A second marriage is celebrated as a penitential act. In fact, the prayer after vows in the nuptial liturgy for a second marriage ends with the words, “You know the frailty of human nature, O Lord.” For the Orthodox, it matters not whether the first marriage ended by divorce or by the death of a spouse.

This is certainly a very strange notion for most Catholic or Protestant Christians for whom death dissolves marriage. Fr. Tom Hopko says of this Orthodox tradition:

In fact, we even believe, and I preach this many times in my life that when a man’s wife dies or a woman’s husband dies, as real Christians they remain faithful to them forever, and they cultivate a new relationship with them since they are in the presence of the Lord. But Chrysostom says that explicitly. He said if you’re really a strict Christian, you will be faithful even through death. And we have no expression in our marriage service “until death do us part.” There is no parting.

Radical monogamy is the most perfect expression of the love of God for creation, as is also virginity. Those are the two perfect human expressions of the love of God in human form. Sure, there can be penance. Sure, there can be compassionate “oikonomia” [accommodation to human weakness]. Certainly, there can be condescension to people’s sins and weaknesses, but they should be understood as being sins and weaknesses. They should not be justified in any case.

Now of course in the secular, fallen world you’ll have people who will say, “Well, why would I commit myself forever to anybody anyway? Maybe we’ll fall out of love. Maybe this is only good for a time. Maybe we’ll love somebody else. Maybe we’ll love many people. Maybe we’ll want to have sex with everyone.” Well the ancient Christian and Scriptural Christian answer would be that that’s part of the corrupted world, but that’s not the way Christians behave. That’s not the way Christians do it. If you’re a Christian, you just don’t do it this way. Period. One God, one faith, one baptism, one spouse.

Notwithstanding the uneven status this tradition of radical monogamy holds in the Church, what it highlights with laser focus is that married love is a most radical form of human love., i.e. love of neighbor in extremis, “in the extreme.” It contains and models within itself all other forms of love — of the friend, the lover, the martyr. Its absolute exclusivity demands an undivided heart. Upon this rock of marital love the human family is built, and through it, as through a diamond, the covenant love between God and humanity refracts its richest spectrum of color.

This should give each married couple pause, and the vivid sense of a vocation is vastly greater than the mere sum of their own individual personalities and preferences. Married love exists to tell the greatest love story ever told and, as sacrament, this love story has in reality been entrusted to them in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Lk. 6:38).

It’s the most important story you will ever tell your children, that helps shape their view of everything.

But we are so weak and small, sinful and inconsistent, petty and miserly! I mean, just yesterday we bickered as we couldn’t even agree on which route to take to the restaurant. How can we bear the burden of an immortal love story and not despair? Ah, yes we can, because this love story is the story of weak and small, sinful and inconsistent, petty and miserly humanity being saved by God while drowning in an ocean of mercy. So nothing, absolutely nothing given over to His providence will fail to tell this story.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

“O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away'” (Rev. 21:2-4).

The poem:

Deathless Love

May my love for you, my bride, be deathless,
and God now forbid that death do us part,
for death has died and surrendered its hold;
the grave, now forbidden to cleave our heart.

May our oneing love, my bride, flare bright
we now all-consumed in Christ-lit flame,
as our love, cross-hewn, stands stern as death,
carved deep into God’s Blood-writ Name.

May the Spirit sing through us, my bride,
bind us, even as with Father and Son is He,
that when death’s shadows threaten Night
Dawn will bid us One by immortal decree.

May we, O flesh of my flesh, my very me,
together in our laughter have eyes to see
ever and forever wrapping all around us
the all-unifying, ever-lovely One-in-Three.

An alternative to anger

nola.com

This is a homily delivered by retired Archbishop of New Orleans, Alfred Hughes, on Sunday, June 5 at the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans. It was a masterpiece and so I asked him if I could post it here. He graciously agreed and then worked hard to turn his handwritten notes into this complete text.

He offers here a vision of faith-in-action that has the power to change our downward devolution into a culture of anger and division into an upward evolution toward a civilization of justice and charity.

+ + +

Tenth Sunday of Year – C

Michelangelo has captured in sculpture what has to be the most poignant moment in history: the widowed Mary, trying to cradle her crucified Son, after his body had been taken down from the cross. It is called the Pietà. (faithful devotion) Today’s Sacred Scripture focuses on two experiences of widowed mothers’ facing the death of their sons. Elijah was staying in the home of a pagan widow in Sarepta. Her son became deathly ill. He was given up for dead. Elijah restored him to full health.

In the Gospel, Jesus encountered the widow of Naim whose son had died earlier in the day and was about to be buried according to Jewish law before sun-down. Jesus intervened and with a word restored her son to life and to his mother.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that our country is like a widow who has lost a son? Our country, often symbolized by the woman depicted in the Statue of Liberty, seems to be widowed, cut off from our founding fathers. And now her children seem to have lost the life, liberty and happiness which that marriage once promised.

Our leading politicians have tapped into an angry reaction. And so we are led to believe that is the best we can do. Perhaps, we need to turn to angels of light rather than those of darkness. I propose today the inspiring memory of a New Orleanian woman, a widow who lost a child and provides an alternative vision. I speak of Margaret Haughery. She was born Margaret Gaffney in County Leitrim Ireland in 1813. At five years of age, her parents embarked on a perilous six month ocean voyage to America in the hope of escaping the dire poverty in which they lived.

They arrived in Baltimore in 1818. Within four years she lost both her parents to yellow fever.

As an orphan, she never received any formal education. She could not read or write. At twenty-one she married a sickly Irish man, named Charles Haughery. They moved to New Orleans in the hope that the southern climate would be more favorable to his health. But within a year, she lost bother her husband and her new born child, Frances. This plunged her into depression.

Margaret’s parish priest urged her to consider volunteering at an orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity, in addition to her work as a laundress in a hotel, to help counteract her depression. She quickly fell in love with the orphans. But she realized that the orphans and even the sisters often went without milk and bread for sustenance.

Margaret gave up her job as a laundress and with her meager savings bought a cow, and then a second. She began a dairy that provided milk for the orphans. She would peddle her milk from a cart to cover her costs and give the rest to the orphanage.

As her business grew, she made enough money to buy a bakery. Then she began to sell both milk and bread so that she could have enough to supply her orphans with free milk and bread. This illiterate woman became a successful entrepreneur in order to feed her beloved orphans.
Not only did she feed the children at St. Vincent’s Orphanage, but she founded four orphanages of her own to take care of the children orphaned by the Civil War and the yellow fever plague which ensued thereafter. The despised Northern General Butler, who oversaw Reconstruction in New Orleans, allowed only one person free access to the city: Margaret Haughery.

When she died on February 9, 1882, Margaret, Mother of New Orleans’ orphans received a state funeral, presided over by Archbishop Perché. This simple woman, who owned only two dresses, one for work and one for Sunday, left all she had to the orphans of New Orleans, black or white, Jewish, Protestant or Catholic.

Yes, there is an alternative to anger: strong, creative love, resistant to darkness and open to the light. Margaret Haughery was an heroic woman who let the light of Christ shine through her.

Isn’t that our call – yours and mine?

Hope in God

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There is so much deep contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God – so deep that it is painful – a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed – empty – no faith – no love – no zeal. Souls hold no attraction – Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His – so He has every right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, Come Be My Light.

Here are some unedited draft notes from a presentation I gave last Fall:

A friend of mine suffered for nearly a year with very deep depression. He said at one point to me:

The future totally vanished. Everything became dark. Nothing awaited me. Everything seemed empty of meaning. I could remember nothing good in the past, only regrets and failure. I could see nothing good in the present and had nothing to hope for in the future. No compass. No center. When it was over and I emerged out of the depression, everything looked different. What I used to hold most important now seemed peripheral, and what I saw as peripheral now seemed most important. Money and work success fell away to the edges, while relationships and God wound up in the center. Almost magically, like it just happened. Only when you lose all your props can you see what’s left is what matters.

After I spoke with him I wrote a slew of thoughts down in my journal, and then used them to build a retreat on hope. Here’s a few lines from my journal:

Hope is certitude that the future holds good in store for me. Theological hope, the infused virtue, sister to faith and charity, is the certitude of faith that the immovable ground of reality is love. That the promised future of God’s Kingdom, punctuating the Beatitudes, holds imperishable good in store for me. If I make the Kingdom my treasure, and the words of the Word my life’s foundation, joy remains, abides.

Joy is delight that springs up from hope’s certitude.

Hopelessness is not simply an absence of hope, but attachment to a form of hope that has been lost, that lacks enduring substance. Hebrews 11:1 — “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Substance! Literally “what stands under” you. Faith is substantial, stable, real, unshakable, enduring. It’s where I throw my anchor, center my identity, plant my many micro-hopes.

We have so many hopes! Some proximate, some remote. Some trivial, penultimate, some ultimate. Where are my anchors set? If you wish to see which hopes truly define you, watch what remains firm in times of adversity. When you lose everything, what’s left? Only what was substantial. The psalms are filled with this insight.

Substantial hope thrives in adversity. St Therese: When everything in you and outside you rages against hope and still you make an act of will to hope in God — then you have awakened within the theological virtue of hope, and not just optimism or well-wishing.

You can’t really call faith faith when you feel it’s all settled and obvious. When everything falls apart, the sun sets and night falls, faith begins. When you cry, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” or “How long, O Lord?”– only then can you meaningfully say, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” When you cry out in distress, sinking down with hands raised up, then you know you really believed someone was listening.

Hardship alone exposes and tests the structure of our inner hierarchies of hope: which hopes define me, which don’t. My spiritual director said to me once when I complained — “Why is this happening? Why is it so hard?” — “One day you tell me you begged God for greater trust, now you tell me He gave you a chance to trust and what do you do? Complain. What do you want?” I said, “I guess infused trust and not the virtue, or a reason to trust.” We laughed.

Sometimes hopelessness is necessary, as it can in short order expose the sandy securities we’ve built our lives on and lead us down to the bedrock. Trust is the hard virtue to acquire, but is absolutely necessary. Without trust, no one would dare hope. Babies stop crying when they cease to believe anyone will answer. When I cry out to God from the pit, decrying His absence, I have received a new and more profound mode of the divine presence: God under the from of yearning. Veni! Veni! O Come! O Come! Yearning stretches your capacity for God, and your capacity to give away what you receive.

Those who have suffered darkness are uniquely empowered to be missionaries of hope to those who live in darkness.

In the darkness illumined by faith I can reset my anchors. In the transition from sand to rock, it seems I almost lose who I am. But what I lose are the illusions. What I gain is the faith of the Cross. Try it now, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

There’s no turning back.