Walter Inglis Anderson

This is my last post written while on last week’s vacation. Sigh. I so enjoyed the space in my life to write. But as I am returning to piles and projects at work, I will likely be sporadic for a while until I can regain my balance.

These are thoughts I wrote after my daughters and I went to the Walter Inglis Anderson Art Museum in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Anderson was an early-mid 20th century artist, naturalist, writer and eccentric. I fell in love with his work. I wrote this journal entry late Thursday night the day we went to the museum. Excuse me for its exclusive self-exploratory focus…

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“Nature does not like to be anticipated, but loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time, the true fountain of youth.” —  Walter Inglis Anderson

My earliest happy childhood memories — maybe 3 or 4 years old — are outdoors. I remember wishing I could live there always, and when my brothers let me stay in their tent out back I thought that might be the way I would live my life. Our backyard in Rhode Island, for me, was a magical wonderland. When I would wake up in the morning, I would bolt outside. And after the sun went down I would sit out and listen to the chorus of the night. I spent hours standing by the pink azaleas in the Spring, watching with rapt attention as bumblebees and honeybees dove deep into each flower foraging for nectar. I can still hear their frantic buzzing and smell the sweet fragrances.

My father tells me I would hover over a black ant mound along the back wall of our house for very long periods of time, absolutely motionless, fascinated by the ants’ tireless excavation project. I remember being stunned at seeing my first monarch butterfly caterpillar brought to me by my next door neighbor, Mark. He and I would play stick ball or catch in the street and then hunt for insects. And then there was that stag beetle that ended up on my shirt, or the praying mantis egg case I brought into school from recess and hid in my desk (and what trouble I got in when they all hatched one day!). When we moved to Massachusetts, our new home was next to a large stretch of woods, open meadows, a stream and a pond. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. After school and sports, and in the summers, I would slip outside and disappear for hours. Ride my bike to Connecticut where it was pretty much all forest. I would wake up before sunrise to catch the morning avian chorus and return home late at night only after I had donated a sufficient quantity of blood to the mosquitoes while lying supine on the meadow adjacent our property taking in the horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

And then there were those fruit bats I would feed with pokeberries. Dang that sonar works well!

I learned carpentry from a neighbor so I could build bird houses and a tree house for myself in the back woods. I spent hours reading books about birds, snakes, insects, trees, pond life, weather. I eventually became so interested in weather that it took me to Florida State University to study meteorology. My dad co-owned a boat with a friend of our family, and we would spend weeks on it every summer out in Narragansett Bay and out to Block Island. Infinite treasures! As soon as we would arrive at our boat Friday evening, I would abscond our dinghy and disappear to explore Wickford Cove; or anywhere we ended up anchored. I would usually fish for Porgy and then use them later to catch bluefish when we were able to troll in the deeper water. Oh, and the sound of halyards slapping the sailboat masts in the face of an impeding storm. Be still my heart. Their chiming, I would have argued, surpassed the beauty any angelic choir could muster.

For me, getting lost in nature, far from asphalt and concrete, was like finding my way out into a most sacred cathedral. Into the spacious land of Canaan. And communing with nature for me was no abstraction. I was stung and bit and cut and scraped and bruised hundreds and hundreds of times, and I considered them all badges of honor that spoke of my committed intimacy with that wild world. I felt alive. Though I would not have thought of it this way then, the world was for me a great sacrament of mystery and wonder where — more than anywhere — I encountered God. The only other place I felt the sacred with a similar intensity was at the Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Which is why I have made my retreat every year since 1987 at a Trappist Monastery — with only two exceptions when I could not make it. This year I will drive to Iowa to stay at New Melleray Monastery. I find their poverty and simplicity wrap me in the beauty and roughness of the earth and allow me to join (especially at 3:00 a.m. Vigils!) the endless chorus of praise that is creation. Laudato Si!

So Anderson’s art today shook me to the core. His life was a driven quest to overcome modernity’s alienation from Nature and permit himself to become the natural world’s iconographer. I felt my alienation acutely, like a wound that had been hidden by a band-aid but was freshly ripped off and exposed. When I read his handwritten transcription of a portion of Psalm 104, which he wrote at night camped out on Horn Island, I fell into near ecstasy:

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

I could see in this moment, as I prayed with him his psalm, how much of who I am remains there, outdoors. There my soul expands, my heart swells, my senses awaken, my mind is clear, my imagination becomes a palette on which creation splatters its infinitely diverse colors. There is the natural temple for my priesthood.

 

I am grateful. And I am absolutely certain that the new creation is teeming with all of this, stripped only of its sacramental veil in order to reveal in full splendor the glory that, though hidden, first seduced me so long ago. When I was very small. I hope to become small again one day. In hope I am saved. Amen.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” — 1 Cor 6:19

wikiart.org

Happy Pentecost! A special shout-out to Thom and Heather Jordan on this nearly 20-year anniversary of their Profession of Faith, Confirmation and First Communion, from their sponsors who love them and think they and their family all rock. Isn’t it awesome that our Catholic Church is spread over so much territory? Plenty of breathing room for charity to grow.

Okay…

Today the Paschal Mystery comes to a wrap as the power of the dead and risen Jesus falls down from the Father and explodes in Jerusalem to make the whole cosmos into a City of God.

The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onward. The Holy Spirit with His gifts guides the Church. You cannot understand the Church of Jesus without this Paraclete, whom the Lord sends us for this very reason. And He makes unthinkable possible, the unimaginable imaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates [aggiornamento] the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going. And we Christians must ask the Lord for the grace of docility to the Holy Spirit. Docility in this Spirit, who speaks to us in our heart, who speaks to us in all of life’s circumstances, who speaks to us in the Church’s life, in Christian communities, who is always speaking to us.” — Pope Francis

Back in 1987 I went through a “Life in the Spirit” seminar and was prayed over for an unleashing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was powerful for me at what was really the beginning of my faith journey. I did not experience the gift of tongues or words of knowledge or other charismatic gifts often hailed by both Pentecostals and Catholics in the Charismatic Renewal as premier signs of “baptism in the Spirit.”  What I did experience, though, was a very intense and sustained awareness of what is often called the “indwelling” of the Spirit (cf 1 Cor. 6:19). In fact, I remember when one of the members of the prayer group I had joined quoted St. Augustine, I thought to myself, “That’s exactly  it!” He told me Augustine said, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” [Actually what Augustine really said is even more lovely and poetic in Latin and English: Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, “Higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”]

God is more interior, “closer” to my innermost self precisely because He communicates to my “self” existence at every second. God is “beneath me,” the “ground of my being,” as the Rhineland theologians of the 15th century loved to say. But God is also insanely close to us because He desires to unite Him-self with our-self. Not united at the superficial levels of our consciousness, but at the source, the core, the origin of who “I” am, the personal spring from which my deepest identity emerges. In other words, God wishes to get dangerously close to my heart, to what makes me who I am as an absolutely unique individual person; to the place where I am stripped of all pretense and deception and empty show and defense mechanisms. There, in that most intimate and supremely vulnerable space within me, where I am “naked,” God wishes to gain entry to become one with me, opening His Heart and Person just as unreservedly to me as He asks me to open to Him.

Whoa.

After that personal experience of the Spirit’s indwelling, of a heightened awareness of my body being His temple, I suddenly became more aware of my words and actions as being done in the presence of God. I developed what I might call an acute case of “holy fear of the Lord,” i.e. a tremendous sense of reverence, awe, fear of offending God who dwelt within. Fear of “grieving the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). That holy fear has never left me in 30 years. In fact, my resolution to give up cussing permanently after my initial conversion experience in 1987 was sealed by this new awareness. I had developed a very foul mouth when I was 13 or so, but after my conversion experience I instinctively knew I had to stop though no one had asked me to.

While I am making this point, let me share a very personal grace I received from the Spirit in that regard six years ago. As I have a bad memory these days, so I cannot recall if I have ever shared it here.

Although I had given up cussing in 1987, and was almost 100% effective in keeping my commitment in the subsequent years, inside of me there was a sewer of language that assailed me night and day. All of the memories and habits of a childhood surrounded by cursing, and years of practicing it with abandon, remained in me. It was especially bad when I would pray. But, at the encouragement of my spiritual director, I had long ago accepted it as a lifelong penance for my sins and the sins of others, and I tried to make the best of it.

In 2011 I went to Confession to a priest who was, by chance, also an exorcist. I had never met him before this. I never mentioned to him my inner struggle with vulgarity, but he himself brought it up — which was a bit disconcerting. Just after absolution he put a crucifix on my head and prayed something like this: “Lord, you know your son here has long struggled with the spirit of blasphemy. And he has been faithful. And now you wish to free him from this so he can worship you in purity of mind and heart.” Later that day, I immediately thought of Exodus 7:16.

It was absolutely astonishing, and I could never explain to anyone what happened with adequate clarity. But I can say that from that moment on, till this day, I have never again been assailed in my mind by vulgarity. While I can call to mind curse words at will, they never present themselves to me. I knew immediately, as soon as he finished praying, that it was gone. I told him so, and he said: “The Lord, the Spirit of freedom, wanted you to first struggle all those years to make you ready to receive this grace. Otherwise it would not be your own, be part of you.” He added, “You know that vulgar and blasphemous words, especially the f-word, are the lingua franca of the demons in an exorcism. Just think of the one time you hear of a disciple using curses — St Peter denying Jesus [Matt. 26:74]. A good sign that Christians should avoid them. A salty word is fine to spice things up now and again, but perverse and blasphemous language that offends God and human dignity are not. We live in a very vulgar culture, which is a symptom of spiritual decay. God wishes Christians to be signs of contradiction that remind the world that we will be judged one day by the way we used the gift of language God gave us to resemble His Word. Go in peace, son.”

O Spirit of Freedom, Spirit who makes of my body your temple, come and abide with me forever. Give me the mind and heart of Jesus and make His prayer my own: “Abba! Father!” Amen.

Distracted by Trivia

iaddiction.com

“What Aldous Huxley [in Brave New World] teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a voyeuristic vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.” ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (c. 1985)

Last week my iPhone shattered. In an event that appeared to be a sign of providentially ironic divine humor, it happened on the first day of my vacation when I found myself cheating on a commitment I had made not to use my phone for anything other than calling and texting family, and then only in necessity. Literally, as I was sending pictures to someone not in my family (but, come on, it was a funny picture!) my phone fell out of my hands and the screen completely shattered and the screen displayed triple images. After a moment of frustration, I belly laughed for at least a minute. I have been without it since. Glorious.

So all this got me thinking throughout the week. Here’s what I scribbled in my journal. No lightning bolt insights, just my summary of a common conversation.

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Our culture, which I myself fully inhabit and struggle with, suffers from a deep and tragic addiction to technological superficiality, to being incessantly entertained and stimulated, constantly consuming and not communing with existence. Our attention is short, shallow and fragmented, and so our threshold of patience grows short. We have no more safe zones insulated from the world of endless noise and chatter; or in the words of William James, from the world of “the great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In such a culture things like prayer and inner silence erode, as well as the ability to sit and be with others. To listen closely or to suffer through the human necessity of feeling loneliness or boredom. All of which are part of prayer, part of love.

We stay in touch with everyone at the expense of the few who need and demand our touch the most. Precious time is devoured by trivialities. Watching the endless string of recommended videos on YouTube, we get sucked into a vortex. But we justify it. While on an iPhone we can swipe away or x-out things that fail to give us pleasure or attract our interest, but life is not that way. However, it too easily becomes that way. We check and use our phones compulsively, not freely. When we get a pause, a slack, a lull, a still moment in our day — or a dead silence at night — we feel the addict’s itch to reach for our phone. Dull the dull, anesthetize the pain and feed the screaming appetites we have conjured unwittingly. Since when did these things cross over from wants to needs?

We ceaselessly take pictures of everything to ‘capture the moment,’ to post for others, to get likes, but fail to encounter real life in real time without concern for others’ approval or interest. Reality inverts, as the virtual becomes real and the real becomes virtual. We live life away from home all the time, every conversation we have in person is intruded on by a third party. Life itself becomes tired and insipid, while life through the screen becomes our litmus of interest, our new heroine.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). We Christians must enact a Pentecostal revolt against this zombie culture, this addict’s world. We must become masters of our technologies and not its slaves. Claim back our power of attention, which is our power to love others with attentiveness. We must cultivate an asceticism that ensures our freedom, that constantly critiques our use of social media, iPhones, gaming, all entertainment, and places all of it in service to virtue, to the ability to be present to the present moment, present to the raw, real, uncontrollable, sometimes unpleasant, boring and tedious aspects of life right in front of us — by divine design. We must radically and regularly confess our techno-abuses in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to access its liberating graces. We must show the world what it means to “put out into the deep,” not live as surface-skimming Christian dilettantes. We must be free — slaves to nothing or no one. We must flee escapism. I’ll end with Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words about the spiritual life that apply so powerfully to this topic:

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action in every present moment that comes our way, welcome or unwelcome?

“You are not the Messiah” — my wife

“Discern and accept one’s limited role in the Body of Christ, and fulfill it.” — Germain Grisez

My spiritual director back in the late 1980’s said something to me that I have never forgotten and have never ceased to find applicable: “90% of discerning God’s will is figuring out what you’re not supposed to be doing.” In other words, life presents unlimited options for doing good. The needs out there are limitless, but you are limited. He also added this tagline to his proverb, “It is always better to do a few things well than many things poorly. Remember, Tom, the devil tempts the evil-willed with evil and the good-willed with good. Good that God never asked them to do. He plays on things like your pride, your good will, your insecurity, your desire to please people. If he [the devil] can get you to spread yourself too thin, distracted from what you are supposed to be about, his work is done. He can just sit back and watch you fizzle out.” He told me another time that people who over-commit like this frequently judge others who don’t live in a frenzy like them and become resentful of those who live with a good balance. Every Lent my director would make me do an inventory, an audit of my commitments, and would review them with me to make certain that my core commitments were being well-served by my secondary commitments. If not, time for pruning.

My boss in Des Moines, Fr. Polich, was having lunch with me one day and reviewing the various projects I was taking on. As I shared with him all of the requests I was receiving to offer collaborative assistance, talks, workshops, retreats, etc.. He said in his coy manner: “Hmm, Tom, well very good. Very impressive. But you know, Tom, good fences make for good neighbors. You need to set your fences in place to protect the property you’ve been given here at the Center. Work in those limits, okay? I’m glad for your zeal and generosity. Let’s just choose the most needful projects that match most closely the mission of the Center and do a good job with those first. Then we’ll see later where we should go next. The turtle wins the race. We want you around with us for a long time.”

In 2012 my retreat director on an 8-day Ignatian retreat helped me to understand very clearly, with very personal applications (!), how I must be able to be brutally honest with my past and admit when I see I made a poor decision in discerning God’s will and learn from that poor decision. And in the silence of those 8 days lots of clarity on past poor decisions became apparent. He said,

You can’t simply say, ‘Well, it must have been God’s will because that’s the way it happened. It’s all God’s perfect plan.’ If you do that, you won’t be able to learn from your mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future. Although all things that happen are never outside of God’s providential will, not all things that happen are what God willed to happen. Obviously! God permits things to happen that are not what He willed to be.

You have to be willing to set aside your pride and fear and give God permission to correct you, to lay bear your guilt and failures. Humble yourself and trust in His mercy enough to not fall apart every time you see you screwed up. Get over yourself, get up and get on with it. Humility means being able to look squarely at all your life’s screw ups, admit them, learn from them, correct them for the future and give them to God as a precious offering that He very tenderly takes and reworks into something beautiful. [He asked me for my penance to bring all of those poor decisions I had come to recognize to Mass that day and offer them up to God. Wow]

That’s the logic of the Cross, the place where God reworks all of our screw-ups and raises good out of them. If you really embrace the Cross your failures will never cause you anxiety, only humility and gratitude. Only if you give Him your failures humbly, though, with no taint of justifying or defense. Then the last bad note of your life’s symphony can become the keynote of a new movement of beauty that God will play with you. And then you’ll notice that you will become more and more merciful with others’ screw-ups because you have tasted, for real, God’s mercy and you want to respond to them the way God responded to you.

Once in Confession, the priest said to me after I had unloaded my trash: “Remember, you only get one chance at this [referring to raising my children]. You need to know that God knows you need to provide for your family and have commitments to that. But everything else that diverts your attention from your wife and children being #1 must go. They need you now. Lots of good you can do for others, wonderful. They aren’t your children. Always put first things first, and the rest will follow. St. Augustine says, ‘Love God and do what you will.’ But I’ll change it up and say, ‘Love your family then do what you will.'”

Fr. Tom Hopko, speaking of the essential commitment to daily prayer, said: “If you don’t believe in the Devil, just commit yourself to spending time every day in prayer and watch all hell break loose. He’d rather you do anything else than pray. Distractions in prayer, assaults on your time for prayer, really brilliant rationales for skipping prayer or using your prayer time for other very worthy things. He comes to us as an Angel of Light. Satan would rather you do a thousand good deeds without prayer than one good deed joined to prayer. Why? Because he knows prayer fills all of your work with the power of God, and that’s the only thing he fears. So if he tempts you to cut your prayer time even 5 minutes earlier than you planned, add 5 minutes more than you planned.”

Last Fall as I was sharing with my wife my exhaustion and frustrations with all of my responsibilities and commitments — kvetching, as they say in Yiddish. After she listened, she prefaced her response to my complaining, as she always does, with, “Do you mind if I tell you what I think?” I said, as I always do, “Of course not! Just be gentle.”  She went on to offer me a very tough and keen analysis of those areas of burden she knew very well were my own fault and pried me from any semblance of “woe is me” victim-mode. It hurt so good. It led to some major decisions that have now played out for the better. At the end of the conversation, she summed it all up marvelously: “Just remember, honey, you aren’t the Messiah.”

Well, that just about sums it all up.

“Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven.” — Henry Ward Beecher

Michael, Nicholas, Maria and Catherine 4 years ago

Maria and Catherine this week

“Children laugh an average of three hundred or more times a day; adults laugh an average of five times a day. We have a lot of catching up to do.” ― Heather King

“The soul is healed by being with children.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A piece of parenting advice my wife and I received nearly 20 years ago from a dear friend went like this: “There is beauty in every age, so appreciate its uniqueness while you’ve got it.” She was responding to my frustration over parents with older children constantly saying to us, “Sure, they’re cute now. But you just wait until they become teenagers! You’ll see.” I swore I would never say that to other parents, and have kept that promise. Having lived through four teenagers, I certainly ‘get’ the challenges that are unique to the teen years. But I can say with our friend these years later: there is indeed beauty in every age.

As we have been spending lots of concentrated time with our daughters this week on our vacation (sadly, our sons had to work), three things have occurred to me in this regard. I’ll speak for myself, though I would guess Patti would echo my thoughts.

First, I enjoy being with our children more than with (save my wife) anyone else. Though we obviously have various conflicts that arise over various things, I never ever tire of being with them, of doing things with them. They have brought unparalleled joy into my life and have made me smile more than any other single thing. There seems to be in that a certain desirable definition of family.

Second, seeing your children develop their own unique personality, gifts and interests is just an astonishing privilege. And seeing them surpass me in so many ways is a thrill I could never have anticipated. You find yourself wanting them to fly higher, run faster, be smarter, love God more than you ever could. And that’s not some saintly selflessness, it’s just the genetic code written into fatherhood and motherhood: “They must increase, we must decrease.”

Third, parenting has the power to carve out a genuine humility in your soul. Wow. Oh my. As my children enter and approach adulthood, I can now assess in hindsight my parenting successes and failures. Dear God. No false humility needed here, as the real thing awaits you in truck loads. Patti says that every night as we kneel at the side of our bed, she prays: “God, please supply for all my failures today, repair any damage I may have caused and use any good I did for their welfare.” Amen. Children pull you out of yourself, call out virtues you did not know even existed, remind you of the virtues you lack, stretch you, pound you, pass you through fire, decimate your sleep, hold a mirror back in your face (yikes!), keep you honest, teach you how to love hard and deep and long. They make you learn to pray again, anew, with them, for them, about them, “out of the depths.” And they plunge your marriage into the refiner’s fire, making you realize you never really knew what it meant to be “one” until they were thrust between you and proceeded to school you in a thousand and one ways to be one.

Patti often says, “On our wedding day we thought we loved each other more than we ever could. We knew nothing!” You ain’t kidding.

I have shared here before that a woman I know with a special needs son (along with her four other children) once said to me, “I never knew how self-centered I was until he was born. And then he, so patiently, taught me to love. If I am ever saved, get to heaven, it will be because he taught me how to get there. How to love.” How clear it is that the more our culture exalts the cult of the self, the less children will be welcome in our world.

Patti has always loved to repeat to people Elizabeth Stone’s quote: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Yes. Exactly. The risk of loving someone you unconditionally invest everything into and then have to unconditionally let go of.

Last night Patti had to return to Metairie for choir practice, so I spent the evening alone with the girls. We played the game Set, listened to music, ate dinner and watched the movie, “What About Bob?” As I sat there with them laughing, I was overcome with deep emotion. Tears streamed down my face with gratitude. How was I chosen by God to raise these children? My sons, my daughters. Our sons, our daughters. His sons, His daughters. If I died at that moment and entered heaven, I would not have noticed the change.

Stay Put

ferrazgroup.co

[Been sitting in my drafts. Yes, still unruly, but it somehow seems timely to launch on this Feast of the Visitation when Mary makes haste through the dangerous hill country of Judea to be of service to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, carrying in her womb the world-consecrating Christ]

I went to a restaurant several summers ago with my wife while we were traveling, and the restaurant owner, who is an eastern European immigrant, came to our table to ask how things were. We told her how much we liked the food and the atmosphere and especially the service. She said, “Good!” And my wife said, “It’s hard to find good service these days, you know?” The floodgates opened and she spoke her mind. I wrote my recollection of it later in my journal:

Yes, Brittany is one of my best. She’s very good and been here for seven years. But you know you’re right it isn’t easy to find good help anymore. I’ve been in this business for many years and can tell you that in the last ten years or so finding good employees gets harder and harder. Makes business harder to run. My experience is few younger people really want to work hard and to pay their dues first, you know what I mean? They’re unreliable, come in late, always want to take time off and don’t have a sense of responsibility, accountability. You know, a sense of commitment to this business. I try to give my employees a sense of ownership. But it’s a revolving door. I try to pay well and be fair and and reward hard work, you know? But if they won’t do the work and stick with it, what can I do? And it’s not like there’s a surplus of jobs.

They show up late day after day and so I have to fire them. They stay out late at night partying and then can’t get up. But the hardest part is so many of them don’t take criticism. They get very offended if you criticize their performance. Come on! So how can you get better? Everything offends them that doesn’t say, “oh you’re awesome,” you know? It’s crazy. Their moms and dads did them a bad deal, I’d say. My mom and dad raised me to be tough and take criticism and work hard and don’t expect anyone to do things for you. They were tough on me because they knew life is tough. Especially for a woman. My dad would say, success is not an accident. And in this economy you can’t survive if you’re half-hearted. But then again without dedicated employees I can’t survive as a business owner. It makes me worry for the future, you know? What will happen? Where will a change come from?

Coincidentally, a few weeks after that conversation I met a young man who came up to speak to me after a talk I gave to a Theology on Tap gathering on “the universal call to holiness.” We ended up staying for over an hour talking. He told me how much my talk spoke to him and to his situation. He then recounted for me a profound experience of Jesus he had at a retreat, after which he became very committed to his Catholic faith. I asked him what he did for a living and said he had worked for the last two and a half years at a local restaurant as a server while he finished his A.A. degree and was hoping to be promoted. I told him how much my wife and I liked that restaurant, but he immediately retorted, “Yeah, sure, the food is good but what happens behind the scenes? It’s bad news.” I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He went on to share some details:

Well, there’s all kinds of crap going on. For example, sexual stuff, like, all the time. The guys watch porn on their phones constantly in the back and then show it around. Even to the girls. And there’s all kinds of sexual relationships, hookups going on all the time. Groping. People constantly talking smack behind other people’s back. It’s just crazy. When I first started I was like, seriously? At a restaurant? You really have to be so strong to resist, though, because it’s in your face all the time. Huge peer pressure. They make it seriously awkward if you refuse the sexual offers.

[I asked him how the managers allow this] Well, the shift managers just turn a blind eye. They know it’s happening but they just want peace. But when the general manager comes everybody acts saintly. And then there’s the super foul language. They’re so polite to customers and then they walk back and their mouth is like a sewer. And they make lewd comments about customers. I mean, I’m not perfect but this is some sick shit. I had no idea a restaurant could be that dysfunctional. I just keep my head down, you know? I mean, I like the work, especially serving the customers. Actually, I would love to be a manager. I know what needs to be done and I could make it better. But right now I just want to get out of there to find a more godly place where I can live my faith radically. I was thinking maybe I could work for God, for the church like you do.

He asked me what I thought. I seized the opportunity. I said:

No! Don’t start at despair and flight. And let’s get this straight — you are working for God. I am working for the institutional church, which means God has called me to be your servant. My ministry is for your mission. I work for the church but you are the church at work. On the streets. Getting employed by the church isn’t any holier, just different. In your work, where you are now, is a whole field of opportunities for greatness. For being radical. You’ve got built into your work a thousand opportunities to exercise hard virtue and to evangelize. If you just surrounded yourself with the like-minded you’ll lose that. I know it’s easier said than done, but where you are now is really where holiness begins and ends for the vast majority of Christians. Out there in the field. Faith with work boots on. Sweaty work.

I told him that this is precisely what my talk was about, was what the church at Vatican II envisioned when it raised up for a new honoring the royal dignity of world-oriented baptismal priesthood. “That’s where Vatican II wanted the epicenter of the new evangelization to be: secular saints.” I added, “Remember what I said, that Baptism and Confirmation set in motion a vocation and a mission to run crazed and headlong out into the midst of the world’s ruins and engage in God’s rebuilding project. THAT is what Catholics mean when they use the word salvation.” He said, “I always thought salvation was of souls.” I said:

Yes, but God doesn’t only want to save your soul, but your body also. And with your body everything you do in the body, which connects you to the whole material world and everyone in it. Even the sewer-mouthed pervs and the nasty gropers. God put you with them for a purpose. Just by being a man of prayer in that restaurant. Just by your refusal to participate in the stuff they do, every day during your shift, makes a huge statement. And your being a normal guy, hard working, honest, and whatever else you bring — people will totally notice. Yeah, some will find it irritating, some won’t care because they’re too self-absorbed to notice. But somebody’s taking note and you never can know what effects God is using you for. You have the best pulpit you could ever get. The only one most of these folks will ever see. A quiet homily.

And remember, the world is only always conquered by Christ one field at a time, one life at a time. But once He gains a field, He’s got a base from which He can launch His revolution. But it takes time. Like a long, gentle and soaking rain.

He reiterated his enthusiasm over being able to assume a greater leadership role at the restaurant, and said that he had gained the respect of many of the employees just because he’s consistent. I continued:

Commitment to this mission from Jesus demands a rugged vision of the lay vocation to be salt, light and leaven in the world. To make the Kingdom of God present and effective. To detonate the J-bomb right where you’re at in the field of battle. Not in the sanctuary but in the field. We need to have a church sanctuary that calls us back in from the battle, to re-arm us, feed us, tend our wounds, help us re-strategize, energize us with pep talks. And where we offer all of the spoils of victory to God. But the laity are commanded at the end of Mass — remember I said that the “Go!” at the end of Mass is an imperative, command verb? — to leave the protected sanctuary and exit into the exposed front lines.

Your restaurant is the perfect arena where your own secular genius can bring about, in ways great and small, a new culture. The same way the Master did, by courageously facing the world with love that’s sometimes stripped naked, beaten, bloodied, spat on, laughed at, rejected, crucified between criminals. And remember Jesus’ initial success stats: only two among all those who surrounded Him on the day of His Passion were converted — the Good Thief and the Centurion. And both were bad dudes before they met Jesus.

Christ-culture, which flows from a splintered Cross and an empty tomb, is not simply about being religious. It includes commitment to hard labor, being a man of your word, being just, fair, chaste, courageous, service-minded, sober, dedicated to excellence in your profession. It includes peace, joy, self-control, generosity. It means being a Christian gentleman. A lost art. All that eloquently proclaims the Gospel of Work and creates a culture that gives Jesus breathing room.

In the early years of Christianity, apologists, who are theologians who defended the faith, would write their defense of Christians to the pagan rulers and would say things like: “Look, Christianity brings all kinds of perks to the Empire. In Christians you have exemplary citizens who live lives of quiet and heroic virtue, who pray for the emperor, who don’t lie or steal or cheat or have sex outside of marriage, who don’t abort their babies, who care for the poor and sick and elderly, who cultivate peace. And all of this is a testimony to the truth of their religion.” Just think if your restaurant was staffed entirely by employees like that — it would make for a more successful business!

That’s the new Kulturkampf the church needs to unleash in society at the end of every Mass: “Go! Be sent! Be cultural revolutionaries, all of you!” The church calls this mission “consecrating the world to God.” To consecrate means to re-claim something for God’s purposes, to make the world the way God wants it to be. Consecrating finds its most perfect expression in the Holy Eucharist. You know, when the bread and wine are consecrated they belong to Jesus entirely, absolutely. But even more specific, in the Eucharistic consecration the Son of God makes Himself claims the bread and wine for His own in a very specific mode: they are His at the moment He hands over His Body to be broken by us and as He sheds His Blood for us. In other words, consecration is joining Jesus as He labors to love and redeem a corrupt, depraved, vicious, ungrateful and perverse rabble, making of that rabble a holy communion.

So let me just say that before you settle on leaving, be sure you first embrace this truth of your faith. Make sense? Look, God has entrusted you with the work of tending a small plot of His Vineyard on 2254 State Street, for 40 hours each week. He’s hoping you can make it bear some good fruit for Him. It’s a vineyard, which means tilling hard soil, clearing stones, digging furrows, planting seeds, praying for rain, hedging, training, pruning, fertilizing. So it’s brutally hard work in the blistering sun. But this is your glory as a layman, the moment of your greatness, the Colosseum of your martyrdom, the way in which Christ continues His conquest of the world from the Cross. Man, you get to bring into that godless space God. Is that amazing? And if we take the Bible seriously, right, it seems God seriously enjoys getting invitations to dine in a den of sin and raise holy hell. [laughs]

All that said, you will absolutely need to find a community of faith for support and encouragement in your parish, or wherever, as a base for your mission. You said have a passion to move up to management, right? And, although it will never be easy or perfect, just think of the influence you could have there. I suspect there’s a calling in that desire. As they say, “If not now, when? If not you, who? If not there, where?” The church needs passionately faith-filled people like you to stay in the world and not just drain out into ministry. I love ministry, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, not for most. The world doesn’t need a brain drain of Christ’s mind. First bloom where you’re planted, and then you can discern God’s will.

My advice in sum? Pray in place and stay put. Just see what happens, what fruits come.

He seemed very enthusiastic and encouraged as we finished our conversation and he gave me his email address and said he wanted to meet again. We did. I gave him the name of a priest I knew would support him and asked him, as is my custom, if he minded my sharing the outlines of his story to benefit others. He said that was fine as long as I kept it anonymous. I wrote him an email the next day and ended with a quote from St. John Paul II:

In particular, two temptations can be cited which [the laity] have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.

I also included the Twenty One Pilots song, Not Today, which colorfully captures the struggle we have with God (“You”) when we sense He is calling us out of our comfort zone and asking us to stop hiding from our mission to transform the world. I’m glad TØP said yes to that mission!

Every Catholic family, and every Catholic institution responsible for forming young men and women should have this burning at the core of its mission: to cultivate faithful and engaged citizens capable of becoming passionate Christophers in the world, carrying Christ into culture, politics, business, economics, science, sales, you name it. Once planted there in the public square, Christ, like King Midas, can refine the world’s alloy into the purest of gold by His incarnate touch. And we are His incarnate touch.

That is where change will come from.

Fr. Humanity

Fr. John

Recently, a priest who served on the formation faculty at Notre Dame Seminary died of complications arising from a rather routine surgery. His name was Father John Arnone. He was only 49 years old when he died and had served as a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 17 years. He had anticipated the possibility of his death by putting his affairs in order before his surgery, preparing all the details for his funeral and penning a profoundly beautiful farewell to all whom he loved and served — including a plea that those he had offended in life kindly forgive him.

He was a jolly and kind man, very personable and relate-able. It seemed to me that almost everyone in the area knew him, even the lady who cuts my hair at Super Cuts. When she found out he had been transferred to the Seminary from her parish, she said (with her fantastically thick NOLA accent): “Oh, dawlin, let me tell you about Father John. He’s a trip. What a good man. You know, when my cousin was sick in the hospital, he…”

He was, from all accounts, an icon of hospitality who made everyone feel at home. I heard quite a number of stories from people who said that he had been instrumental in their return to the practice of the faith and had provided in their lives, at a crucial time, the healing and reconciling presence of the church. From my own limited experience with him, but more with the litany of testimonies I listened to, it was clear that Fr. John served as a sign of the humanity of the church and of the humanity of a God who is not only above us and beyond us, but for us and with us. Fr. John’s humanity was not merely an instrument of grace, like a cipher, but a bearer of grace, like Mary, revealing in his own life that holiness makes us not less but more genuinely human. Yes, people want God from their priests, but they want “God with skin on,” as Venerable Fulton Sheen loved to say.

After attending the Vespers wake service at the Seminary, which was deeply moving, I stood outside across the street from the Seminary and watched the procession of humanity stream into the church. On and on and on. I thought of how many lives he had touched as a spiritual father, brother and friend to so many people. Baptisms, weddings, confessions, Masses, anointings, funerals, blessings, homilies, kind words, smiles, advice, late night visits to the hospital. I then thought of the tremendous power of every human life to impact others’ lives, for good or for ill, and how that legacy will await us in the next life. Glory to you, O God of justice and mercy!

I imagined, as I prayed for him, all those to whom he had brought good in this life were waiting to greet him in Paradise, in a similar procession, filled with God-joined gratitude. Whatever sins he had committed in life, it seemed to me, would be covered amply in death by the endless echoes of love resounding from all those people (1 Pet. 4:8!) whose voices would at once be the very voice of Christ (Matt. 25:31-46!).

But it was just before the funeral began, as I sat in the only available space — the cry room! — that I would receive what I considered to be the most remarkable compliment about Fr. John’s ministry. A gentleman with a long white beard, who appeared to be in his late 70’s, asked me if I knew Fr. John personally. I explained to him our work together at the Seminary and my admiration for him. The man then said to me:

I knew him as well. Though not well. But enough to know the man. I’m a good read of people, good at a quick size-up. You see, I’m an old crotchety fellow, not too pleasant to be around. But Fr. John, well, he was genuine. The real deal, you know? And one of the only people I’ve ever known in life who listened to me. Not just heard me, but listened. You know, so well that his advice back to me struck me hard. And I’m a better man for it, though I don’t think he ever knew that. Does now. It’s just amazing what can happen when you take the time to listen to someone, you know? You be sure to tell the seminarians that. And tell them to look out for old geezers like me and don’t write us off. We may seem tough on the outside, but we need religion just like everyone else. But we’ll be the last to admit it. But when he sat with me those times he did during some rough times — and let me tell you Fr. John always made time for you — it was as if God Himself was listening. And I’m here today to thank God for him.

Thank God for him. As Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” — where charity and love prevail, that is.