I’m here for you


A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” — John 4:7-10

A woman shared with me her personal testimony about the years she suffered from bulimia, and how faith in Jesus helped her to form a new self-image and overcome her self-loathing. She gave me permission to use the outlines of her story as a witness to others.

She described her upbringing in a broken family — divorced parents, shared custody, a narcissistic father and needy, anxiety-ridden mother. Both parents, she said, were incapable of nurturing her as a child. In fact, they seemed to “feed on her” for the attention, support and adulation they desperately sought. As a result, she said, she turned to other things for comfort and security. Especially she turned to food, and eventually to the binge-purge cycle characteristic of bulimia. As she increased her food intake and weight, her parents became critical and concerned, which only reinforced her grasping for comfort and accelerated the development of an obsessive concern with body image fueled by self-hatred.

There’s a lot more to her tragic story, but what I would like to describe here are two simple, yet profound insights she shared.

First, she emphasized the power parents have in shaping their child’s deepest identity, which sets for them a rudder into the future, for better or for worse. She said, “It’s so important for parents to communicate to their children as they grow up: I am here for you, not you for me. Parents who use their children abuse their children.”

Second, she shared how in college she found faith in Jesus in an evangelical church (although she is Cathoic now), and discovered in that relationship something that upturned her world: “Jesus taught me that God did not need me. Instead He loved me. And there’s a big difference. That realization was more releaving than I could describe. Growing up under parents who take, take, take, and then suddenly you discover that God gives, gives, gives. Just living in that relationship with God has allowed me a safe place to find peace and security and helped me let go of the fear that no one was looking out for my best interests. Suddenly you see that your need to control or possess starts loosening its grip … I let God change my body image and came to see my body not as shameful but as God’s gift. So many women I know who’ve lived under hard or abusively demanding or needy parents are filled with some sort of self-hatred or rage. Lots of times they cover it up with obsessive work or the need to please or sexual promiscuity or have a hyper-critical sense of humor. Or have food addictions like me, always trying to prove their worth and get affirmed and fend off criticism.

“If they’d just allow God to love them and fill them up. But it’s really a vicious cycle. Since they can’t conceive of intimacy like this, they just hide from it or run from it or rage against it. All this instead of inviting Him in to love them as they were made to be loved … One of my co-workers said to me once, ‘How can you love God as your Father when your dad was so  crappy?’ I told her that once I felt God’s love the associations all melted away. My faith actually redeemed my bad experience of men in general and helped me forgive my dad. I finally came to the conclusion that my dad just couldn’t be what I was really looking for, which was God. And I needed to stop harboring resentment toward him and my mom for that.”

At the end of our conversation, she added: “But don’t get any illusions. This has been a long process and I know it won’t ever end until heaven. But it gets better. You just always bear the scars. Take one day at a time.”

Let me end with a video that my wife sent me the other day. It’s about the power of parents in their children’s lives. Especially the father-daughter relationship. Click here.

“He loved to the end” (John 13:1)

Many of you may have seen this very moving video of a 93 year old man speaking tenderly to his wife of 73 years as she is dying. But just in case:

When my wife showed it to me, I told her it reminded me of the song she and I dubbed “our song” when we were engaged. We danced to it at our wedding. It’s called Where’ve You Been by Kathy Mattea. Listen:

Beauty will save the world

Repost from 2012

Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy…. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence. — Pope Benedict XVI

There’s a famous story told about the conversion of the “Rus” in Kiev (in present day Ukraine) to Christianity. In 980 A.D., Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent out teams to investigate the major religions in the regions surrounding his empire — Islam, Judaism, Western Germanic Christianity and Eastern Byzantine Christianity. As the story goes, the men who returned from Constantinople (Byzantium), and its Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, had this to say:

The Byzantines led us to the buildings where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and we cannot forget that beauty.

Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity, was baptized in 988 A.D. and assimilated the ecclesiastical and liturgical traditions of Byzantium into what are the present day countries of Russia and Ukraine. I recall an older Siberian woman in my father’s Orthodox church saying to me once, “When we lived under the Soviet yoke, it was in the churches and in the divine liturgy that we found refuge in beauty. Because the Soviet world was gray and ugly, but our churches were beautiful, filled with all colors. Faith gave us hope.”

The Christian vocation is to reveal the beauty of the otherworldly Kingdom of God in this world. First and foremost, it is the saints, etched by divine love, who are God’s greatest work of art in creation. I recall the one and only time I saw Mother Teresa, it was her homely feet that caught my eye. When I saw them I could only think, “Those feet have carried Jesus to innumerable people.” I would never again think of this passage from Isaiah the same again: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation” (Is. 52:7). How beautiful are those feet! Contra the shallow elements of human culture, Jesus introduced deep canons of beauty into creation that judge not by the outer criteria of cosmetic allure, but by the inner form of selfless love both given and received.

Mother Teresa’s feet. cookiecrumbstoliveby.files.wordpress.com

In addition to fostering saints, the Church has a mission to create beauty through culture, extending the radiance of the Transfiguration of Jesus to the whole material creation. In the Christian vision, Jesus is the source and summit of both divine and human culture, and on the Cross he manifests to the world the apogee of the true, the good and the beautiful. This is so because, as theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar memorably worded it, “the entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” In the Passion, God suffused even the most grotesque and horrid elements of life with the seeds of glory. Only those with eyes of faith, though, can see things thus. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

In our Catholic Tradition, the Divine Liturgy, which upwells from the open Heart of Jesus dead on the Cross (John 19:34), is itself the creative and redemptive wellspring of all culture. Liturgy transforms men and women into fiery embers of beauty that Christ casts out into the world to set it ablaze. Imagine if the Liturgy was always celebrated with that vision of things in mind!

In that vein, I wanted to share with you a 7 minute video that includes a haunting performance of the “Cherubic Hymn,” which is sung during the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Churches prior to the Sanctus (holy, holy, holy). This musical setting for the hymn text was arranged by Russian composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and is sung in Church Slavonic — which is the ancient liturgical language of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy. This arrangement always leaves me paralyzed with awe. I can hardly breathe. I always imagine the Sanctus being sung by grieving Seraphim and Cherubim, unheard by human ears, around the Cross as Jesus died:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The video also features an array of exquisite churches from around the world. Below, I also include the words to the Cherubic Hymn in English.

After this hymn bathes you, tell me: can’t you feel within a greater desire to love like the Crucified?

Take 7 minutes of quiet if you can and enjoy:

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic hosts.

Holy Smoke

“The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.” — GK Chesterton

A Jesuit was asked whether it was licit to smoke a cigar while praying, and his answer was an unequivocal “no.” However, the subtle Jesuit quickly added that, while it was not licit to smoke a cigar while praying, it was perfectly licit to pray while smoking a cigar.


2008 post-Easter Vigil party at the Brotherhood of Hope home, March 23 at 2:00 a.m.

Think about the Butterfly


A bit ago, I was sharing with my Confessor the story of how I came to meet my wife. {an aside: he’s a great Confessor, precisely because he asks really good questions and then follows the response with great interest all the way to the end, only to ask more great questions that take me deeper than I sometimes like} As I told him various “freeze frame” moments in our relationship, he kept taking me back further and further — even back to the time before we met. In fact, he had me think all the way back to the origin of my decision to leave Massachusetts and go to Florida State University (where I met Patti). I told him that decision originated in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV in Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. It was 1984 and I was myopic in my desire to be a weatherman. I went to “spend a day” with him. At the end of my time there, after he finished the 6 PM news, he told me that he highly recommended I consider FSU as it had a top notch Meteorology department. And it was, well, sunny Florida and not New England. From that moment on I worked to prepare myself for that journey south. My Confessor then said to me:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had shaped by that one comment that day? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to your conversion to the faith, meeting your wife, having your children, your friendships, your jobs … Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It argues that the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is influenced by something as tiny as the flapping of the wings of a butterfly weeks earlier in Panama. That’s why we should never underestimate the effects our tiniest acts of fidelity can have on the future world; a future that filled with things that didn’t have to be this way. Just because we can’t see those effects or feel them, we often despair and say: “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t really matter.” But it all does matter. We tend to be so myopic and shallow in our judgment on the value of what we do, on what’s important or what’s not. On what God can do with our little nothings if we entrust them to Him with great love. The interdependence of all things is so staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate that just one decision, one smile, one sacrifice or one harsh word can change the course of history. For better or for ill. Even — I’d say especially — your interior life radiates out into the whole cosmos. Your most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it either easier or more difficult for those around you to follow Christ. Every day, begin with a prayer for the Spirit to guide your actions, that they will set in motion the uncountable goods that He wills. And at the end of every day entrust all your past actions to His mercy, asking Him to forgive the failures and bless the successes; and untangle any knots you may have tied up. On Judgment Day one of the things we will see — but then through God’s eyes — is this insanely complex web of impact we were part of. And we will be allowed to see our role in that web. I often think Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” may come to us from people we’ve never even met. Though they weren’t fed by us directly, they were fed by the others we impacted, who in turn fed them. Generations later in the future. Think of that next time you feel your work is insignificant. When God chose Abram and Sarai, He didn’t say, “look at the ground in front of you and think of your next step.” He said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count! That’s the impact you will have on the world!” Their “yes” came and, holy cow, look at what’s happened. When God asked Abram to “Go!” He was thinking 1800 years in the future to Mary and Joseph and Jesus; or 3800 years later He was thinking of you. God’s plan is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.

What was amazing about this is that when I spoke with a friend of mine this last week, she unwittingly said nearly the same thing to me: “Tom, things you are doing now will only fulfill their purpose in your great great grandchildren.”


JP2, we love you!

Today is the memorial feast of St. John Paul II.

In his honor, I re-post here Cardinal Ratzinger’s unforgettable homily at JP2’s funeral Mass. And at the bottom of the speech is a very moving one minute video of the last time the Pope gave his blessing urbi et orbi, to “the city and the world” on Easter Sunday. Its eloquence and power can only be understood in the light of the Cross.

Cardinal Ratzinger sprinkling the casket of Pope John Paul II. trbimg.com

“Follow me.” The Risen Lord says these words to Peter. They are his last words to this disciple, chosen to shepherd his flock. “Follow me” — this lapidary saying of Christ can be taken as the key to understanding the message which comes to us from the life of our late beloved Pope John Paul II. Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality — our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.

These are the sentiments that inspire us, brothers and sisters in Christ, present here in St. Peter’s Square, in neighboring streets and in various other locations within the city of Rome, where an immense crowd, silently praying, has gathered over the last few days. I greet all of you from my heart. In the name of the College of Cardinals, I also wish to express my respects to heads of state, heads of government and the delegations from various countries.

I greet the authorities and official representatives of other Churches and Christian Communities, and likewise those of different religions. Next I greet the archbishops, bishops, priests, religious men and women and the faithful who have come here from every continent; especially the young, whom John Paul II liked to call the future and the hope of the Church. My greeting is extended, moreover, to all those throughout the world who are united with us through radio and television in this solemn celebration of our beloved Holy Father’s funeral.

Follow me — as a young student Karol Wojtyla was thrilled by literature, the theater and poetry. Working in a chemical plant, surrounded and threatened by the Nazi terror, he heard the voice of the Lord: Follow me! In this extraordinary setting he began to read books of philosophy and theology, and then entered the clandestine seminary established by Cardinal Sapieha. After the war he was able to complete his studies in the faculty of theology of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow.

How often, in his letters to priests and in his autobiographical books, has he spoken to us about his priesthood, to which he was ordained on November 1, 1946. In these texts he interprets his priesthood with particular reference to three sayings of the Lord.

First: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16). The second saying is: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). And then: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9). In these three sayings we see the heart and soul of our Holy Father. He really went everywhere, untiringly, in order to bear fruit, fruit that lasts.

“Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way!” is the title of his next-to-last book. “Rise, let us be on our way!” — with these words he roused us from a lethargic faith, from the sleep of the disciples of both yesterday and today. “Rise, let us be on our way!” he continues to say to us even today. The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months. And in this way he became one with Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep.

Finally, “abide in my love”: The Pope who tried to meet everyone, who had an ability to forgive and to open his heart to all, tells us once again today, with these words of the Lord, that by abiding in the love of Christ we learn, at the school of Christ, the art of true love.

Follow me! In July 1958, the young priest Karol Wojtyla began a new stage in his journey with the Lord and in the footsteps of the Lord. Karol had gone to the Masuri lakes for his usual vacation, along with a group of young people who loved canoeing. But he brought with him a letter inviting him to call on the primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski. He could guess the purpose of the meeting: He was to be appointed as the auxiliary bishop of Krakow.

Leaving the academic world, leaving this challenging engagement with young people, leaving the great intellectual endeavor of striving to understand and interpret the mystery of that creature which is man and of communicating to today’s world the Christian interpretation of our being — all this must have seemed to him like losing his very self, losing what had become the very human identity of this young priest. Follow me — Karol Wojtyla accepted the appointment, for he heard in the Church’s call the voice of Christ. And then he realized how true are the Lord’s words: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it” (Luke 17:33).

Our Pope — and we all know this — never wanted to make his own life secure, to keep it for himself; he wanted to give of himself unreservedly, to the very last moment, for Christ and thus also for us. And thus he came to experience how everything which he had given over into the Lord’s hands, came back to him in a new way. His love of words, of poetry, of literature, became an essential part of his pastoral mission and gave new vitality, new urgency, new attractiveness to the preaching of the Gospel, even when it is a sign of contradiction.

Follow me! In October 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla once again heard the voice of the Lord. Once more there took place that dialogue with Peter reported in the Gospel of this Mass: “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep!” To the Lord’s question, “Karol, do you love me?” the archbishop of Krakow answered from the depths of his heart: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our beloved Holy Father. Anyone who ever saw him pray, who ever heard him preach, knows that. Thanks to his being profoundly rooted in Christ, he was able to bear a burden which transcends merely human abilities: that of being the shepherd of Christ’s flock, his universal Church.

This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate. I would like only to read two passages of today’s liturgy which reflect central elements of his message. In the first reading, St. Peter says — and with St. Peter, the Pope himself — “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. You know the word (that) he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36). And in the second reading, St. Paul — and with St. Paul, our late Pope — exhorts us, crying out: “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, beloved” (Philippians 4:1).

Follow me! Together with the command to feed his flock, Christ proclaimed to Peter that he would die a martyr’s death. With those words, which conclude and sum up the dialogue on love and on the mandate of the universal shepherd, the Lord recalls another dialogue, which took place during the Last Supper. There Jesus had said: “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied: “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow me afterward” (John 13:33,36). Jesus from the Supper went toward the Cross, went toward his resurrection — he entered into the paschal mystery; and Peter could not yet follow him. Now — after the resurrection — comes the time, comes this “afterward.”

By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the paschal mystery, he goes toward the cross and the resurrection. The Lord says this in these words: “when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18).

In the first years of his pontificate, still young and full of energy, the Holy Father went to the very ends of the earth, guided by Christ. But afterward, he increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly he understood the truth of the words: “someone else will dress you.” And in this very communion with the suffering Lord, tirelessly and with renewed intensity, he proclaimed the Gospel, the mystery of that love which goes to the end (cf. John 13:1).

He interpreted for us the paschal mystery as a mystery of divine mercy. In his last book, he wrote: The limit imposed upon evil “is ultimately Divine Mercy” (“Memory and Identity,” pp. 60- 61). And reflecting on the assassination attempt, he said: “In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love. … It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good” (pp. 189-190). Impelled by this vision, the Pope suffered and loved in communion with Christ, and that is why the message of his suffering and his silence proved so eloquent and so fruitful.

Divine Mercy: the Holy Father found the purest reflection of God’s mercy in the Mother of God. He, who at an early age had lost his own mother, loved his divine mother all the more. He heard the words of the crucified Lord as addressed personally to him: “Behold your Mother.” And so he did as the beloved disciple did: “he took her into his own home” (John 19:27) — “Totus tuus.” And from the mother he learned to conform himself to Christ.

None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing “urbi et orbi.” We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

St. Why

St. Pio of Pietrelcina celebrating Mass with stigmata visible. miraclesceptic.com

Repost 2011

What attracts us to the saints, compelling us to venerate them?

Good question.

We venerate them because they are exemplars of discipleship. They show us what living “in Christ” looks like in every age, in every state in life, and so on.  They fought the good fight, and whenever we think of them we are inspired to imitate them. And to imitate them is, as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 1:11), to imitate Christ.

We venerate them because they love us and manifest that love by serving as intercessors with Christ in the heavenly Kingdom. They cheer us on as we strive to witness to Christ (Heb 12:1-2).

We venerate them because some of them desire to become our intimate friends. Patron saints are not just the God-commissioned benefactors assigned to our unite category of need, but men and women of risen flesh and blood who wish to befriend us. I can personally attest to this with vehemence.

All that said, Eamon Duffy, in his book Faith of Our Fathers, argues a really assaulting point. He says that saints in the pre-modern world were mostly venerated not because they were good examples but because they were “wholly other” wild prodigies and awe-inspiring miracle workers. Unlike most contemporary saintly portrayals, Duffy argues, the more saints of times past were unlike the rest of us, the better. Odder = better. Saints bring to our common lives the uncommon and dissonant mystery of God. Saints allow ordinary folks to see and touch the Transcendent in reliquaries filled with bones, blood, flesh, hair and clothing. They reveal to us that the “stuff” of this world is, bit by bit, being translated into the World to Come. The body of a saint is a locus of an unpredictable and supernatural power that threatens to, at any moment, rip open the veils of time and space.

Duffy contends that the new model of sainthood as “moral hero” runs the danger of either fostering Pelagianism — which he defines as “a wearisome emphasis on good deeds and moral effort that makes of the saint a prig and puritan” — or rendering saints so much “like us” that we fail to look on them in stunned amazement. In his view the older model is truer to a faith founded on the Resurrection, offering us saints who are celestial tightrope walkers, ascetic stars, brutally tortured martyrs and eccentrics who dare to transgress the Inaccessible Light that threatens to transubstantiate not only the bread and wine but the whole cosmos. Even the litany of faithful saints found in Hebrews 11:29-38 seems to betray all propriety:

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated– of whom the world was not worthy–wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

While some of the change in tone has resulted from a more critical historical scholarship that excises the legendary elements of traditional hagiography, the deeper roots of this shift, Duffy argues, are to be found in modernity’s exclusion of the supernatural and miraculous from the acceptable horizons of empirical reason. It’s easier to talk to 21st century rational empiricists about saints who were great humanitarians than it is to speak of saints who levitated, raised the dead, lived on the Eucharist alone or who had bleeding holes in their hands.

Unless the data of faith is allowed into the purview of critical reason, we lose all of the explanatory power required to make any sense of supernatural events and persons that seem only to violate nature or to stand as unsolved remainders awaiting future developments in science that will finally explain them exhaustively in empirical terms. For people of faith, however, miracles are not merely anomalies or violations of the laws that govern nature, but are proleptic intimations of the ultimate destiny of a cosmos that is being re-created in the risen and exalted Christ (cf Rom. 8:19-20).

While all of the catholic reasons for venerating saints need to be balanced, maybe we need to attend more to the God of the Odd and the Christ of Folly. Maybe such veneration will restore to our faith a more vertical orientation, and punch some sizable holes in modernity’s silicon ceiling and linoleum floor.