This is a snippet from an email I sent to someone who asked me how to think about St. Paul’s praise of virginity as not being a “diss” on marriage. My response is not a systematic treatise, but simply a set of brief and free-flowing insights:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. 1 Cor. 7:32-34

While there is great beauty in the vocation to virginity’s “undivided interests” centered in the “affairs of the Lord,” there is also a great beauty in the vocation of spouses whose call to perfection is found precisely in the tangle of “divided interests,” i.e. worldly affairs and how to please one’s spouse. While consecrated celibacy-virginity beautifully witnesses to the reconciled completion of the Coming Age when God will be all in all, secular spouses, bound up in worldly affairs, bear witness to a God still-at-work in the mud. And they do this by means of their very volatile vocation of effecting in their daily lives the consecration and reconciliation of all-things-divided — effected by their love for God and neighbor in the midst of temporal, secular, worldly concerns.

Spouses, and all called by God to realize the Kingdom in the midst of worldly affairs, suffer in a singular way the awful tensions of a world-still-divided. A living martyrdom. They are the prime locus where God conquers all in this world that is still unconquered; heals all that is unhealed; redeems all that is unredeemed. They labor with profuse sweat amid the thickets of cursed thorns and thistles to cultivate soils worthy of Christ the Sower who scatters through, with and in them His Kingdom wheat. In them He sows into every portion of creation the living grains of God that will bear fruit for eternal life.

I wrote to my wife this summer while I was away for three weeks. Not too romantic in all its abstractions, but it made a point that is to me very powerful:

You’re my downfall, you’re my muse
My worst distraction, my rhythm and blues
I can’t stop singing, it’s ringing in my head for you

Among a thousand other reasons, God has given you to me to teach me how to love with a heart divided without division. You are my distraction that is all at once the overthrowing of all distraction; the song that gathers up dissonant notes into an exquisite symphony. You are for me the temple where love for God and His creation no longer divides my heart. You are a sacrament, His sacrament, my sacrament, our sacrament. You are for me the way I learn to inhabit Christ best; inhabit not God-alone, but God-and; Christ the Creator-creature; Christ the God-man; Christ the God-neighbor; Christ the Bridegroom-Bride whose very embodied Person heals all divisions, reunites all distractions, reconciles all loves by revealing to us the deepest secret of God: His human Face. Your face. Our faces. Our children’s faces. To be fully alive means to look on all these faces and see One love weaving every love into one magnificent work of art. You.

So small

“No one can grow if he does not accept his smallness.” ― Pope Francis

After reading this quote in an article, I wrote this stream of consciousness reflection in my journal:

Every year I feel smaller and smaller. I realize more how much I don’t know. How much there is to know. How fragile I and others are.  I see how much I have not done, should have done, can never do. I wish I had, wish I had not… I see the vastness of the ancient universe. I, so tiny. Those whom I once saw as invincible, are rendered helpless by illness or misfortune. How limited is my control over life. I see all my flaws and limits more clearly as I age, and time wears away the desire for illusion, to see what I want to see. I look now: there I am.

When I was small I would always notice tiny things, relished hidden treasures. As I grew, I grew dull to them. But grace has reawakened in me a preference for the tiny and small and out of the way, the obscured beauties. I want to re-turn to childhood — “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3). At least on my better days. I love learning the small details of others’ hopes and dreams, pains and anxieties. I have grown again to cherish stopping along the road to catch view of a tiny flower. My wife and children have taught me that love is in the details.

I beg that God’s attentiveness to hair-counts, which seems to rank high on the spectrum of His delight, becomes my own. “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid” (Luke 12:7). Yet I so easily get lost in a narrowed vision, become myopic. It’s usually an experience of pain, sickness, suffering — mine or others — that rips off my blinders yet again.

I pray often for what St. Teresa of Avila says is a sweet fruit of divine charity: to notice above all, amid the many flaws of others, the often hidden goods that are there. Not to dwell in their failings, which loom, and which oft may make me feel better about my own crap and distract me from my own mess. But at what a cost. Little Thérèse also saw this:

I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects–not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.

I see more clearly now than I ever have that God prefers nothing more than working great things within all these limiting factors. He came for the sick, he loves the outcast, he has preferential love for the 1 out of 99. The Most Low God, the Infinite lover of the itty. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Orthodox paradoxy.

And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah  — Leonard Cohen

All our weaknesses and broken jars must be given to Him as an offering; turned from inward fretting upward into a prayer, a cry for mercy. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), i.e. everything human about your life is game for sacrifical worship. My fragilities, if turned from empty gaps or murky holes into spacious capacities for God’s gifts, become wellsprings of divine grace in the midst of the world. Only what is offered up can be consecrated.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, beset by the tempest of human failures and incomplete lives, I jump out of the boat into the Ocean of mercy toward the God who calls me to walk upon the surging waves, eyes fixed on Jesus, and trust.

“In peace I will lie down and fall asleep,
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:9)


Just wanted to apologize for the typos and other errors in this latest post on Prayer. I transposed it from raw journal form straight to the blog and did not review it carefully enough. But maybe that is just part of the point: in prayer you give what you have to God, in raw form, and ask Him to edit it for you! Theologians can justify nearly anything!

I Heart Prayer

I was at a staff retreat recently given by Archbishop Alfred Hughes, and took copious notes. I thought I would share three of these journaled points with you today as I personally found them very rich. I left them unedited. They intersperse his insights with the insights they provoked in me. Archbishop’s phrases are italicized, mine are the rest.

1. Prayer is ultimately about the heart, about learning to speak to God with both affection and awe; with all the tension inherent in “daring” to call God “Father.” What does praying with the heart feel like? How do you know you’re doing it? When you find an array of emotions entering your conversations with God: joy, sadness, anger, fear, confusion, lust, even bland apathy. Heart-prayer does not limit expressions of prayer to only “acceptable” feelings like trust, joy, reverence. We need to pray out of our life-experience so that God can enter into that life experience with His saving power. Heart-prayer is when you pray “intentionally,” meaning you attend to God’s presence, pray “before His face” very near you, with focus. When I speak with my wife and my mental attention wanders off while she’s speaking, she can immediately tell — usually I’ll use auto-responses like “sure,” “right” or “okay” inappropriately. She might say: “Hello? Are you with me?” lol And my attention returns to her. When we both attend to each other, there’s intimacy. When I am listening attentively to her word, internalizing it and responding out of that word directly to her, I am truly speaking “heart to heart.” And vice versa. My wife has proved herself absolutely trustworthy to me in the 28 year history of our relationship — and so I can speak from the heart de profundis, “out of the depths,” without fear. Defined by the promises of our marriage which give our love the shape of totality, she is my most intimate confidant to whom I can reveal the deepest, darkest, best, most vulnerable portions of my inner world. “The heart of her husband trusts in her…she does him good, not harm…” (Prov 31:11-12). Knowing she listens with love, with care, receives me into herself as she listens. That she gives me encouragement and insight as well as honesty and truth and challenge. All of these things make of our communication an exchange of hearts. God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, waiting for our consent for Him to enter and begin a conversation. A real one. A deep one. An authentic one. Cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart.”

So it is with God as Father. Who He is for me, and I for Him makes our every encounter an encounter of hearts. In Jesus He has revealed His identity as a Father who is absolutely trustworthy and in love with mankind in general, and me in particular (cf John 14:9; 16:27). And to invite my trust in this, He has bared His Heart to us first, manifested His longing desire for each of us (John 19:28, 34; 1 Pet. 5:7), so that we might have the courage to trust Him and do the same in return. Every broken experience of fatherhood in this world Jesus wishes to repair by bringing to us the Father. God is also the awesome God, the holy-holy-holy other, beyond all language, wielding unspeakable power; and yet He is in essence love, the defining core of His identity as Father. To enter into the mystery of heart-prayer with God is to risk an exodus from the narrow confines of our sin-sick shallow lives out into the horizonless and fathomless Ocean of God’s fierce-tenderness that reveals an infinite love; a love that counts the hairs on my head. This Father has also all of the attentiveness and tenderness of a mother’s affection (Is. 66:13). “Hearts unfold like flowers before Him, opening to the Sun above…”

2. The Our Father teaches us that prayer is about letting God be God and not simply trying to convince Him to do our bidding. Because God is this kind of Father, we know that in His will is our peace. Much of our prayer, especially in the face of suffering and evil, often looks less like the surrendering trust of a small child raising his hands toward his daddy, and more like the fearful bargaining of an abused child who assumes that his father wishes him harm. The Our Father is really an extended consent to God to do-His-will; to carry out His providential plan in us. We say, in essence, in me (1) reveal the holiness of your Name; (2) make your kingdom come; (3) carry out your will completely; a will which looks like (4) feeding us superabundantly; (4) forgiving us so we might pay forgiveness forward; (6) empowering us to resist yielding to destructive temptation; and (7) liberating us from the Evil One. 4-7 show that the consent of 1-3 is always good for us, permitting a truly provident, loving, redeeming Father to care for us.

But we know from His crucified and risen Son that the playing out of the divine will in real-time takes the form of trust and obedient, self-sacrificing love. When given to God (Rom 12:1), the whole catastrophe of our lives becomes a eucatastrophe, a “good disaster” that resolves tragedy into a divine comedy. Such a handing over of the whole mess to God always yields the fruits of life and love and peace and justice and reconciliation and every other good thing — the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus – — as God gathers up, glorifies and preserves all good, and redeems all evil for unending ages in the Age to Come. Hope. Trust in this God is possible — unshakably so — because His Son blazed a trail ahead of us; He who was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10; 5:8) in the darkness of Friday, impregnating Friday with the bright dawn of Sunday.

3. Prayer gives God permission to heal our false self (based in the compulsive need to prove our worth) and draw out our true self (based in our dignity as being unconditionally loved). Our attitude toward life is shaped by a thousand hidden premises formed in our earliest years of life. As we grow older wisdom requires us to examine and redact these premises as needed. In prayer, we give God permission to redact, edit our false premises and rewrite in their place true premises (Jer. 31:33). So many of these! This is the Church’s whole teaching that flows from Sacred Scripture. The most fundamental premise is this: our life, our very existence is grounded first and foremost in God’s unconditional, free, gratuitous, irrevocable, exceedingly particular and boundless love. Love! And love has been very specifically defined by God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, who is Himself God’s definition of both human and divine love (John 1:1-18). To embrace that basic premise is to discover a life grounding revolution, the liberating truth of who we are as loved to the core. Again, prayer is the permission for God to edit and re-write our faulty inner manuscripts and pen in us our new name (Rev. 2:17).

I can’t not end with Screen:

An Anatomy of Adultery


Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union (Catechism #2381).

There was one thing I wish Pope Francis had spoken about in Amoris Laetitia: adultery. Not simply to condemn the act, but to offer pastoral wisdom on how to avoid falling into it. Especially as culture increasingly normalizes sexual sin.

Throughout my lifetime, I have witnessed many marriages damaged or ruined by adultery. Some of these I have witnessed up close, others from a distance. I’ve known people on every side of the stories of betrayal: adulterous spouses, betrayed spouses, and those who were party to the adultery (and their spouses). Some happened early on in marriage, others later in marriage — even after 40 years. Of these, some have confided to me their agony and fall from grace, others their experience of betrayal, while still others have cut me off after their sin became known. Some were able to save their marriages from ruin, others not.

I’ve observed the spectrum of adulterous behavior, from sex-starved husbands who’ve sought out prostitutes to attention-starved wives who carry on “emotional affairs” with celibate or married men.

It was some recent news that I received from a longtime acquaintance, regarding her traumatic experience of marital infidelity, that made me decide today to write this post [I wrote this draft many months ago]. She said to me, and gave me permission to share: “I told [my husband] in a text just yesterday that my trust in our love is dead.” That’s really a powerful definition of mortal sin: the sin that kills covenant love and brings death. And while the adulterous acts of sexual infidelity are gravely evil in themselves, to me it is the pain and destruction they leave in their wake in countless others’ lives that is the far more hideous crime. Like the tsunami that begins as a hidden earthquake in the dark depths of the ocean, adultery unleashes pain and uncontrollable damage in many other people’s lives.

I will share a few simple insights here today. Nothing earth shattering. These are my thoughts on how, from my own limited view, such things seem to happen. Each story I have witnessed over the years is itself unique, of course, but there are some common threads. Hopefully what I share will help someone out there to avoid these traps.


“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

The wisdom of Jesus’ insight into the hidden origin of adultery is profound. Adultery begins deep within, hidden in the realms of desire and the secret deliberations of the heart. Most of the cases I have witnessed originated in what is often called an “emotional affair” or an “affair of the heart.” They began with the gradual — sometimes sudden — emergence of an emotional attraction that opens out into emotional intimacy between a married person and someone else. What may begin very innocently as a compassionate conversation with someone about a personal struggle suddenly transforms into an intense feeling of vulnerability and intimacy. A new door has unexpectedly opened deep within the heart, a door that previously was only open to a spouse. His imagination and her affection have suddenly been captured by this person, and they feel thrown off balance, questioning things they never thought were possible to question: Is this really happening to me? Is this even an option?

The rush of new feelings incite fear, confusion or even a strange and forbidden excitement.

The emergence of such powerful and unplanned thoughts, feelings and desires can be terrifying. In the beginning, it might seem best to deny — even to yourself — the existence of these new and unsettling feelings. It may seem best to ignore the dire warning signs that signal a dangerous line has been crossed. Yet, how one or both parties in this emotional affair respond at this early juncture — before the point of no return — is key in determining the future course of events. To not act decisively here is as good as fully consenting to the temptation.

St. John of the Cross says that if we stop the Enemy at the gates, before he gains entry, we can easily conquer him. But, to extend his analogy, if we allow the Enemy to board our ship, he will quickly overthrow our strongholds (the emotions), blind the eyes of the captain (the intellect) and seize control of the helm of the ship (the will). Temptation, once consented to, grows in power exponentially.

In our Catholic spiritual tradition, temptation is best resisted by exercising watchfulness, guarding the heart, and exercising custody over one’s thoughts. In a word, resisting temptation requires is to be prudent. In the case of temptations to infidelity in marriage, prudence offers several very specific helps.

Prudence makes us able to recognize that marital and celibate promises do not render us miraculously immune from the desire for intimacy with a “forbidden” other. I should not be shocked when I find myself attracted to someone who is not my spouse. Not only does this reveal my humanity, but it also is a call to renew my promise of exclusive love for my spouse. In every temptation is hidden a vocation to heroism, to raise our base animal instincts up to the dignity of sons and daughters of God.

Prudence makes us ready to admit our weaknesses and limitations, to confess our need for grace and for others’ support, and to avoid all that threatens to lead me into ruinous choices.

Prudence empowers us to acknowledge that we are just as capable of succumbing to temptation as anyone else. Those who feel invulnerable and invincible, or who are naive to their own limits, are more likely to risk playing with fire, getting burned and burning others. Arrogance, presumption and naiveté all go before the fall.

Prudence makes us ready to construct wise and strong physical and emotional boundaries in our relationships with the opposite sex. I won’t text her, I won’t drink with him, I won’t be alone with him, I can’t listen to his intimate struggles because doing that makes me vulnerable to…

Prudence makes us prepared to recognize and act on any warning signs that signal a door in the heart — reserved only for my spouse — has been opened to someone else: he’s on my mind all the time, when I’m with her all I want to do is make her happy, when he’s with his wife I feel jealous.

Prudence makes us ready, when we are tempted, to seek counsel from someone with whom we can be radically honest about absolutely everything. This is a person who can also hold me accountable and help prevent me from being seduced by the allure of secrecy, of lies and of rationalizations. If you feel tempted to avoid such honesty and accountability, it’s a really bad sign.

Lastly, prudence keeps us committed to being honest and transparent with our spouse. As an older gentleman I know, who has been married for many decades, once said to me: “When you can’t look straight into your wife’s eyes when she asks you for a straight answer, something is wrong.”

Without the exercise of such prudence, one is quite certain to fall victim in temptation’s hour.

Marriages threatened by the temptation of adultery are often — but not always — beset by various life-stressors not being addressed by the couple in a healthy and consistent manner. Exhaustion, constant conflict, financial instability, emotional distance, being overwhelmed, feelings of isolation or insecurity. These, if not attended to and resolved, can render a spouse vulnerable to the entrance of a new relationship, to someone who seems able to solve or alleviate my present problems. Like young lovers blinded by infatuation, forbidden love is easily susceptible to flights of fantasy or to idealizing a person who has brought into my life something new and positive. She appreciates my humor, he thinks I am attractive, she needs me, he understands me. This “the grass is greener” mindset is exceptionally powerful as delusions go, but of course it never yields what it promises.

But the grass ain’t always greener on the other side,
It’s green where you water it.

This fantasy, if left unchecked, grows like mold in the dark. Flirtatious behavior, frequent texting, long conversations, a secret rendezvous or brief sexual encounters can quickly proliferate. Then, after one incautious decision, the secret is broken and the truth is finally revealed. Though great damage has already been done, now a second crucial moment of decision arrives. Will I face the terrible truth? Will I repent of my sins? Will I work to restore and heal what has been harmed in my marriage and family life? Or will I rationalize what I have done, harden my heart and betray the oath on which I first built my marriage and my family?

In the Garden of Agony, Jesus counseled His weary-with-grief apostles: “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). The greatest spiritual guards against falling in temptation’s hour are prayer, devotion to the Virgin Mary, frequenting the Sacraments, especially heart-rending Confession, and relying on a community of support from those who share a commitment to the sanctity of lifelong marriage. Those who try to go it alone will fail.

And as the best defense is a good offense, a healthy marriage is the best inoculation against temptations to infidelity. A married couple must remain grounded in their love for one another. They must choose the other every day as their life’s highest priority, and embrace the inevitable trials and temptations that attend marital life as the royal road of love that alone leads to God. Being faithful to your spouse requires not just avoiding temptations to infidelity, but stoking the fires of love that God entrusted to both of you on your wedding day. The words addressed to parents and godparents at a baptism apply well to husbands and wives on the day they are married:

This fire is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. You have been set afire by Christ. May you keep the flame of love alive in your hearts. When the Lord comes, may you go out together to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. Amen.

When I face Christ in judgment, I know the first thing He will ask me is to see my wedding ring for an inspection to see if I allowed that fire to refine its gold.

I will end with a quote from 3rd century theologian Tertullian’s letter to his own wife. Here he describes the “good offense” of a Christian marriage.

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in home, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice … Nothing divides them either in flesh or in spirit … They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake God’s banquet, side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts … Seeing this Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present.

Lord of the Dance

While I am posting pre-written work, I’ll just do it again once more. This one’s from June. I did not think it was complete, but now it seems so…

“Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope.” — Pope Francis, #AmorisLaetitia 219

I love to dance, but I am so bad at it that I rarely get the chance to let loose without extreme self-consciousness. Only when I’m with my wife, who can dance and loves to dance, or when I’m alone do feel free enough to allow myself permission to dance with abandon. One day, Patti and I will take dance lessons.

One of the reasons I love dance is its uselessness. It’s a sheer act of expressiveness. When I dance with my wife, I am able to say with my body: you are simply a joy to be with. After we dance, I always feel like we celebrated our wedding all over again.

Just like liturgy, dance is a form of play. Play expresses freedom and creativity and the celebration of existence “without a why.” Dance is an imaginative shrine for choreographed spontaneity that shows how artful intertwining freedoms can be. How wonderful! In play we can see the dramatic nature of existence as a wild and dangerous love story, carried out amid light and shadows, performed with abandon. While there are rules that govern play, the rules give ample space for risk, which is the premise of every aspiration to greatness.

The revered liturgical theologian Romano Guardini eloquently expressed the playful aspect of liturgy in his book, Spirit of the Liturgy:

The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline who has knowledge of the world who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, God’s kingdom on earth. Truly it is Eternal Wisdom’s delight “to be with the children of men” (cf. Proverbs 8:31).

Jews know how to dance. The scantily clad King David famously celebrated his liturgical whirl around the Ark of the Covenant, much to his wife Mychal’s chagrin — “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam. 6:14).

Dance inscribes music in the body, shaping it into the form of its rhythms, melodies and harmonies. If the baptized body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and the body is to become at all times a liturgical offering glorifying God (Rom 12:1; Col. 3:17), can we not say that when we dance we are enacting, in a singular way, the lived liturgy of joyful praise to God? It’s hard to imagine a more worthy manner of revealing the beauty and goodness of this world and the world to come.

An African-American priest I am blessed to know once texted me something totally remarkable. I received it last Fall, the morning after my wife and I had attended our parish’s annual festival. We had danced the previous night for about two hours to live music played by a local band called Bag of Donuts. Though we were one of the few couples dancing, it was so much fun! Because of her. Well, he wrote me these words in his text: “Dr. Neal, I was praying last night for you and got this crazy sense that Jesus wanted me to tell you to not be afraid to dance like a white boy. That when you get to heaven He wants you to dance. So go ahead and dance, Dr. Neal!”


So during my recent silent retreat [in June], I did something totally new for me. And a bit odd. The retreat house was completely empty and so on one of the nights I decided to try it out. I put my earbuds in, set my iPhone playlist to songs I like, and danced in the mostly dark dining room for the next hour. At the end I was soaked with sweat and full of joy.

It. Was. Awesome.

With eleven statues of saints lining the walls around me, I swear I caught sight of a few Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.

All I could think of as I danced was the line in the Prodigal Son story: “as [the older son] came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing” (Luke 15:25). That’s what goes on in the Father’s house, so I felt in good company. And even if I am poor at it, I have to believe God is delighted with the spirit behind the action.

Try it sometime if you haven’t.

Let them praise his name with dancing,
    making melody to him with tambourine and lyre (Psalm 149:3)

Live in the Light

Here IS a post I completed in July that I will post today…

The thirteenth rule: Likewise, [Satan] acts as a licentious lover in wanting to be secret and not revealed. For, as the licentious man who, speaking for an evil purpose, seduces the daughter of a good father or the wife of a good husband, wants his words and persuasions to be secret. The contrary displeases him much, when the daughter reveals to her father or the wife to her husband his licentious words and depraved intention, because he knows well that he will not be able to succeed with the undertaking begun: in the same way, when the Enemy of human nature brings his wiles and persuasions to the just soul, he wants and desires that they be received and kept in secret; but when one reveals them to his good Confessor or to another spiritual person that knows [the Devil’s] deceits and evil ends, it is very grievous to him, because he gathers, from his manifest deceits being discovered, that he will not be able to succeed with his wickedness begun. — St. Ignatius of Loyola

I have written on this before, but felt moved to write on it again: the importance of not hiding your inner struggles and temptations; of not deceiving yourself that you can “tough it out” on your own and, through the sheer power of white-knuckled determination, overcome temptations and struggles without the assistance of another wiser than yourself. Such inner isolation and arrogant self-reliance is the perfect breeding ground for things like discouragement, despair or that most extraordinary human capacity to rationalize and justify succumbing to temptation. When we self-isolate, cutting ourselves off from the saving power of the God-Man, Jesus (i.e. God saves us not directly but through other human beings), we are on our own against “the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12).

Fr. Tom Hopko summed up well the orthodox Christian spiritual tradition’s universal insight:

The person should open their life fully to at least one other wise and trustworthy person, telling absolutely everything, without editing or hiding anything: their thoughts, dreams, temptations, actions, sins, fears, anxieties. This person must be able to listen to you without judgment, but be able to judge the lies and lead you into the light … The desert Fathers called this the “baring of thoughts” and considered it an absolute requirement for growth in virtue … without this practice, one is dangerously subject to prelest [delusion] and all the deceits of the Evil One, who thrives on isolation, secrecy and self-direction. St. Teresa of Avila says self-direction is the blind leading the blind … Satan remains brilliant and is a master at cloaking darkness in light. He tempts the good with good, and the evil with evil … St. Symeon says, it’s better to “be called a disciple of a disciple rather than to live by your own devices, gathering the worthless fruits of your own will.”

I share this now because this summer I experienced yet again the power of this truth, and the power of the lie. I had been struggling with an inner storm for months, and when I finally surrendered my pride and revealed it fully to a wise and trustworthy confidant, its gripping power was shattered. I still had to work through how best to overcome the temptation, but its enslaving grip was demolished. This is the power hidden in sacramental Confession, spiritual direction and spiritual friendships. And I’ve always believed this is the deepest meaning of James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Confess, pray for one another. Though one must use great discretion in choosing the recipient of that confession, the practice itself is foundational.

Regardless of how well I know this truth, or have been through this cycle, I find myself lured into this trap again and again. That’s just the human condition. But it was precisely because I knew the Thirteenth Rule that I knew it’s what I had to do. It’s not always easy to find the “wise and trustworthy” confidant, so it’s something I never take for granted and pray for very often. 

St. Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Jesus tells us it is the truth that sets us free. Living in the truth, in the light, fleeing the dark isolation of keeping secret your inner struggles/temptations, and praying for a trustworthy and wise confidant are the ingredients of inner freedom that blossoms into virtue. God has made us this way, so we simply cannot flourish in freedom without one another. In Christ’s Body we are part of a living symphony, and beauty can only bloom in each of us when we have surrendered ourselves to the unifying song of love that the harmonious Spirit of Jesus sings through, with and in us (e.g. 1 Cor. 12).

We must always move from isolation to communion, from “leave me alone” to “don’t leave me alone”… A 21P if you’re game: