Lake Ella Sky

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” — Ansel Adams

Another self-indulgent photo album from the 3 days Patti and I spent in Tallahassee, Florida during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Tallahassee is our spiritual home: found our faith there, met there, married there, had all our children there, made lifelong friendships there. The photos capture sights that caught my fancy. Each had a specific meaning to me that I’ve tried to distill in these brief captions. And I’ll end by treating you to the wildly gifted Colleen Nixon’s playful song about our beloved Tallahassee! For those so disposed, enjoy…

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“Crux.” This is the crux of a cross made by a dear friend of mine. It’s gorgeous. If the Cross is a symbol of God’s love for the world, this cross is a symbol of my friend’s love for God.

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The stream where my sons and I would spend hours catching small fish, tadpoles and building dams made from stones and logs. This must be There (Rev. 22:1)

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And great grammar!

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Lake Ella, where Patti and I spent hours and hours walking and talking. She would even let me practice my first lectures with her as we walked.

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The games I would play with a friend at Black Dog Cafe, as we spoke about Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev

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Realized eschatology. My dear friend Peter Bond, Regina Cigars, Abita Amber and Momo’s pizza. Maranatha.

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Pete Bond’s own “Jerry’s Cigar Shop & Ashton Lounge”. Come on, man, can’t you have this in New Orleans?

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The Live Oak tree our children loved to climb when they wanted to climb trees. Also There (Rev. 22:2)

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Graffiti: man’s irrepressible need to deface

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Firing range at our friends’ house.

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“You make wine to cheer man’s heart” (cf Psalm 104:15)

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My daughter, Catherine just before her Freshman dance. Where’s the stop button?

LA LA LAND

[written this past Monday immediately after leaving the theatre]

I just went to see the musical-movie, La La Land. Not being a big romance movie fan, based on the preview I had seen I would never have chosen to go had my wife, daughter and a guy friend all said to me very insistently: YOU MUST SEE THIS. I went and I am so grateful I went.

I’m not an art critic, but a theologian, which could make this a bit of an odd take. With that warning in mind, a few meandering thoughts…

It’s a movie about dreams, love, art, passion, imagination, success, failure, heartbreak, choice, destiny and so much more. It touched something very deep in me, as all great art should, and helped me see parts of my own life story with fresh eyes. Drama, if done well, should unveil the world anew; stretch your horizons; fill your palette with more colors with which to see and paint the world. In fact, I think I remember St. Catherine of Genoa referring to a vision of Paradise she had which, she said, revealed to her colors she had never seen before. The hard thing about that is you can’t describe them, because they don’t exist in human experience. This movie gave me some new colors that illumined parts of my life I had not been able to see beauty in before. My wife said to me before I saw it, “It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.” Seemed enigmatic until I saw it, and now I get it.

After it was over, I sat– or rather, hid! — and cried for quite a time. I am not a crier. The tears did not flow from being touched by this or that sentimental scene. Rather, tears came because I saw something unexpected and received an insight into life I was unprepared for. What? Something like: I saw splendor in my very ordinary life. I saw providence afresh in my personal story. I sensed a strange hope in my dashed dreams and my darkest failures. Though the movie contained no explicitly religious themes, it revealed to me the surprises that spring from divine providence. But this was more like an intuition than a clear concept, like the invisible light of the sun which only shows its spectrum when it strikes concrete objects; that can only be appreciated in reflection (or refraction!).

Thank you, God, for the gift of art.

Obviously I really recommend seeing it.

Slight spoiler:

Among my favorite scenes was when Mia auditioned for a role in a movie set in Paris. She’s asked to make up a story on the spot. She tells of an Aunt who seems to have inspired Mia’s own artistic vocation. This woman was a free spirit with an artist’s soul who lived both triumph and tragedy. Her greatness, to Mia, was in choosing to live not merely admiring the beauty in life at a safe and calculating distance, but risking the embrace her “mission” to experience and bring beauty, with all its terror and wonder, into the world. Only those who have taken this risk, who have drunk deeply of reality and lived to tell of it, can recite so eloquently of its majesty. St. John Paul II says as much:

What artists manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendor which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

Okay, here’s Mia’s audition song (text and song), The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris
I remember, she used to come home and tell us
stories about being abroad and
I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once,
Barefoot

She smiled,
Leapt, without looking
And She tumbled into the Seine!
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones
who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
that ache
Here’s to the mess
we make

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
Sunset inside a frame
She lived in her liquor
and died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones
who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
that ache
Here’s to the mess
we make

She told me:
A bit of madness is key
to give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us,
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools
who dream
Crazy, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back,
to that
Her, and the snow, and the sand
Smiling through it
She said
She’d do it, Again

30 years of gratitude to Protestants

January 3, 2017. Liturgical memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction … We can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through others—from our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ. Finding him really in our life of faith, we become witnesses and can contribute to the novelty of the world, to eternal life. — Pope Benedict XVI

On the evening of Tuesday, February 24, 1987 the course of my life was forever changed. While I was an undergraduate at Florida State University, a young man from Apalachicola, Florida named Chris came to my dorm room to speak with me. I knew him from an English class, and we had chatted a number of times before and after class about common interests. But this night he came to my dorm room to take a really big risk: to share with me the Gospel of Jesus as a member of the Evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ.

I had given up on my own Catholic faith on every level by that point in my life. In fact, going to church made me sick. I despised it. So when he came into my room carrying a tract detailing the Four Spiritual Laws dear to Evangelicalism, I was gleefully ready to pour venom and ridicule on this kind young man. I was the master of biting sarcasm. But he persevered and, facing my interspersed joking-cutting remarks, fitfully took me through the simplistic stick figure drawings of the Four Laws and explained to me (1) that I was a sinner, (2) Jesus died for me, (3) Jesus loved me and (4) He wanted to be my personal Lord and Savior. Chris even sang for me, off-key, one stanza of a song about Jesus. Wish I could remember it. It all sounded so silly and absurd.

But something was happening inside of me. In fact, by the end of his brief time with me it was so intense and disconcerting that I ushered him out of the room hastily under the pretext that I had to meet up with my girlfriend to study. He left me alone, but I knew I was not alone. The room suddenly changed and everything became different — maybe I could say in hindsight, my room became otherworldly. And then (without trying to describe the specifics) Jesus revealed Himself to me in that room. Absolutely shattering. And I knew somehow that He was revealing Himself as Almighty, as the creator and sustainer of all things. It was like I was ushered into John 1:1-3. Jesus was in that room under the form of what Eastern Christians call the Pantocrator, the “Omnipotent One.”  I even touched the wall next to me and felt — somehow — He was sustaining its molecules in existence at that exact moment. Utterly chilling.

Then as suddenly as it began, it all ended. But for me, its end was my beginning. My whole life, I knew, was never — never — to be the same. My girlfriend summed it up well when I later shared the experience with her: “You’ve become a freak.”

Yes, a freak of nature and of grace.

My whole reason for sharing this today: This singular grace was given to me through the vivid, real, sincere, bold, personal, simple, focused faith of an Evangelical Christian. He cut through all the thickets that my life-experience had build around my experience of God by giving me a raw introduction to the person of Jesus. Solus Christus. Christ alone. Yes, I later came to disagree with aspects of Evangelical Protestant theology and wholly embraced my Catholic faith. But the fact is, the earthquake of God — Christ — raised me from death through this young man, Chris, who was fully animated by the Evangelical tradition. It was a gift of Providence that has marked my whole life and theological vocation. And after 30 years I have a very long tale to tell of my gratitude to Protestant Christians of every denominational persuasion.

Now and again in this 500th year of Luther’s evangelical revolution, I will write of my indebtedness to various Protestant brothers and sisters over the years whom God has placed in my path. And there are many! Yes, there is a theological dialogue and debate to be had in this year, but there is also need for a serious confession of the extraordinary good God effects deep in the “schismatic” fissures that cut through the Body of Christ. And there, maybe, He pours His choisest wine precisely to heal those fissures.

All of this came to me last weekend as I listened to this popular Christian song by Hillsong, called Oceans. As with so many songs in the Evangelical tradition, it drips with the divine-human encounter, prayer, and the quest for an intimate, transformative and direct experience of the God of Jesus Christ. Though I am not a personal fan of most pop evangelical Christian music, there are some that really speak deeply to me. This is one.

May God reward that young man, Chris, who risked my ridicule 30 years ago. And may He give to us Catholics the same bold spirit that desires nothing more than to bring Jesus to a broken, cynical and alienated world. Amen.

Basil and Gregory

eikonografos.com

After Tuesday my posting will be sporadic as work resumes and my Christmas writing spree ends. It’s been a joy to have the inner freedom these last weeks to post!

Today is the memorial of Saints Basil the Great (+379) and Gregory Nazianzen (+389), who were both brilliant theologians, bishops and close friends. Here’s a nugget of wisdom from each for you to much on today:

Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to one who has nothing. Neither is it small to God, if we have given what we could. Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good. Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. He assumed the worse that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich. — St. Gregory Nazianzen

When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator. — St. Basil the Great

Pathetic, loved, loving.

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Be merciful with yourself and with others. Of course, we’re to be merciful to others, but we must be merciful to ourselves too. We cannot judge ourselves more harshly than God does, and the worst sin is despair. So we should be living by the mercy of God all the time—taking responsibility for our life, but not berating ourselves or beating ourselves up. God does not want that. There is no merit in that. Repentance is what God wants, not remorse or some type of self-flagellation.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said: “To have the Holy Spirit is to see your own wretchedness peacefully, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.” St. Therese of Lisieux, a Roman Catholic saint who died at 24, she wrote to a friend: “If you are willing to bear the trial of your own wretchedness, serenely, then you will surely be the sweetest dwelling place of Jesus.” We have to bear our own faults, serenely. St. Paul said: “Where sin has abounded, grace has superabounded.” And we cannot let the devil rejoice two times. Pythagoras said: “When we fall, the devils rejoice. When we stay down, the devils keep rejoicing.” And nothing puts the devils more to shame than, having fallen, we stand up again. So we must bear peacefully, calmly, our own weaknesses, our own failings. Expect them. Don’t make them happen, but expect them. We are not God. — Fr Tom Hopko

Once when I was speaking ill of someone, my spiritual director said to me (per my journal entry from later that night):

Beware of self-righteousness, which is using the gifts you have been given against others and for your own benefit. The self-righteous carefully build a fortress around themselves made out of things like knowledge, petty criticism, cynicism, a sense of superiority or biting humor either to exalt themselves by lowering others or to buffer themselves, preventing others from seeing their own many faults and weaknesses. You’ll notice as you get to know them that self-righteous people are often self-loathing people. They really despise themselves but displace the pain onto others. Maybe they had demanding or critical parents who never were encouraging or satisfied. So they’re driven to impossible standards of perfection. Or maybe they were never taught as children to put others first in life, and so they find everyone to be a threat to their ego-centric world.

Here’s your remedy against it. Always have someone like me in your life who knows the REAL you, warts and all. Pray for self-knowledge, to see yourself as God sees you; which is to see both that you are pathetic and that you are infinitely loved by God. Pray for divine charity, to allow God to love you as you are (not as you imagine yourself to be) so that you can then learn to love others as God loves you. St. Paul [Eph 5:1] says “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Only those who know they are loved like this can love like this; who know they are forgiven can forgive; who know they have freely received can freely give. You can’t give what you don’t have, and you can’t have what you won’t receive. Especially in Confession, drink deeply of God’s love for you in that exact moment: in the face of your filth, His pure love for you. Pass it on.

Encourage the good in those you dislike and pray in a 10:1 ratio for those you criticize sinfully [10 minutes of prayer for every 1 minute of criticism], begging God to give them what they are lacking. Or even if you criticism is warranted, pray for them like a Good Samaritan. As soon as you see another person has a problem — is being stupid, mean, angry, deceitful, lazy, hurtful, arrogant, whatever — you shouldn’t just walk by them murmuring about them. Get down on your knees for them and pour the oil and wine of your prayer on them while carrying them to God. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. And take St. Ignatius’ counsel relentlessly to heart: “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love.”

In a word, make certain that all you do is done out of love. Love always wishes the other well, good. Especially the other we despise or who despises us. “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?” [Luke 6:32] Everything you say or do needs to be measured by whether or not it is done for the benefit of another and the glory of God. This phrase should serve as the backdrop to everything in your life: “For the glory of God, the salvation my soul and of this person…” If what you wish to say or do at any moment does not seem to complete that sentence worthily, don’t say or do it.

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A great new year’s resolution for me, again, in 2017.

 

Family Dinner

6th century mosaic, Last Supper; Ravenna. christianiconography.info

…when Jesus wanted to explain to His followers what the meaning of his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. —  N. T. Wright

In many cases, parents come home exhausted, not wanting to talk, and many families no longer even share a common meal. Distractions abound, including an addiction to television. This makes it all the more difficult
for parents to hand on the faith to their children. A family that almost never eats together, or that never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone, is hardly a family. Sitting at table for the family dinner, sharing our meal and the experiences of our day, is a fundamental image of togetherness and solidarity. — Pope Francis

When Patti and I got married and had children, I began to learn things good, bad and indifferent about myself that I was never really aware of before. When you live with people 24/7, they see things; you see things; and you begin to unearth patterns of thinking and behavior that often stem from your family of origin that, while you were single, must have been dormant.

One of those patterns I became aware of was my gut level aversion to sitting down for a family meal. That had not been, for the most part, a habit of my own childhood. So I preferred to eat alone, efficiently, in haste and with minimal interaction. But my wife insisted that regular family meals be a part of our new family life. Though I subscribed in theory to the idea, my neuro-pathways had been so deeply etched by lifelong habits that each meal became for me a hardship; a scourguing; an inner battle between a good idea and an ingrained habit. The Good Idea said, “remain with us, for evening is near” (Luke 24:29); the Ingrained Habit said, “he immediately went out, and it was night” (John 13:30).

I intellectually “got” that the family meal was meant to serve as a focal point of communion, unity, conversation, bonding, story telling, schedule planning and building a common vision of who we are. And I quickly began to understand the many ways it served as the most important means of communicating the fact that love means enjoying idle time with one another. This was new for me. I often prayed for grace to overcome my desire to flee the table, and worked to restrain my selfish protests to my wife that we get a reprieve from this form of culinary torture. My deep-seated aversion to this practice seemed impervious to the inroads of my lofty sentiments.

But I recall noticing, after about four years relentless daily fidelity to daily meals, there was a subtle change at work in me. I remember specifically mentioning it to Patti one day. While there was no one “wow” moment where I was suddenly transformed, I began to feel more and more at home at the table, less restless. Not a pacific state of being, but more natural feeling.

At around the ten-year mark, though, I do remember very clearly one specific event. My wife had announced that we would have a “casual” dinner, so everyone could eat when and where they wanted. To my shock, I felt sad. I wanted to sit and eat and talk. It was a moment of genuine surprise, and I laughed out loud! I realized at that moment, after ten years of fidelity to my wife’s marvelous vision of family unity around a table, I had become a different man with a different vision. After 20 years of practice, it’s still not a perfectly consistent disposition. I’m sure it will never be. But something genuinely new had come into being within me, grace at work through my family had carved some fresh neural pathways. I wrote in my journal the next day:

What a giant victory of insignificance for me. Seems so small, but it is monumental. Patti obligated me to do the right thing for the sake of our family. My grandfather said to me, “If you want virtue, fake it till you get it.” Jesus said, “Only the one who does the will of the Father” walks into the Kingdom of love; into the family of God [cf Matt. 7:21]. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for commanding the Sabbath rest, when we cease work and focus on being-with over doing-for. Thank you for obligating us through Mother Church weekly to the Eucharistic feast. There we learn the beauty of wasting time together with you, O Banquet Host, Father-forever and Lover of Mankind.

Here’s my biblical meditation on this: “But they urged Jesus, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:29-31).

Mystics in the Yuck

Tapestry of Nativity in the nave of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France. wikimedia.org

Since “the human person has an inherent social dimension”, and “the first and basic expression of that social dimension of the person is the married couple and the family”, spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family. Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union. — Amoris Laetitia #316 (Pope Francis)

This is my favorite passage in all of Amoris Laetitia. I thought of this today because this time of year tends to bring out the best and the worst in family life, and because I had a conversation with a friend this week that included an amazing insight she said I could quote. She has tons of family issues — addiction, disability, divorce, unemployment, just to name a few. As we talked about these various trials, and the impact they had on her, she said something close to this:

But you know, Tom, I was praying the other day asking Jesus how I was supposed to find Him in all of this mess, as I just could not quiet my soul enough to get into the season and pray deeply. So much yuckiness. I was so incredibly frustrated. Like I wanted to either run from my problems or from God. But on Christmas eve I felt Him say to me, as I sat in the pew with my restless children,

“Child, in the unrest, fighting, turmoil you accompany my Family well in these days. I was conceived amid suspicion, rejection and fear, born homeless, hunted by Herod, welcomed by a massacre and sent into exile in Egypt. My mother and father found me dwelling in the midst of these un-ideal circumstances. Found joy. I chose to begin my life there so I could be closest of all to suffering families. So there, smack dab in the middle of your trials, is where I feel most at home. Welcome me and you will find me. It’s in these tangles that I love to weave my most beautiful tapestries. But you’ll have to wait until the next world to see it finished.”

Is that not stinkin’ awesome?

It is.

And, as “Is that not stinkin’ awesome?” is a loose rendering of Mary’s Magnificat, let me leave you with that song about the God who loves tangles: