Orientation and such

Sunset on Sunday

The biosphere of Truth is mystery, inaccessible depths, and unreachable heights. Its homeland is the eschaton, the absolute future beyond the horizon of history—and its major role in the present is to be constantly in a state of opposition to our attempts to make absolutes out of some of our human attitudes, approaches, and opinions, which are limited by our own individual (not universal) experience. — Tomáš Halík

Just love this quote. His view of Truth is why I, after 30 years of sustained reflecting on the same truths of faith, find myself increasingly spellbound over its limitless depth and dynamism. Every time I seem to finally grasp a particular facet of faith, it immediately outpaces me and transcends my pretentious claims to comprehension. The word “comprehend” comes from the Latin com + prehendere, “to entirely catch hold of, seize.” If there is one thing that the God of Israel is clear about, it’s that no one manipulates, captures, circumscribes God, save His own Spirit who “searches all things, even the deep things of God [ta bathē tou theou]”  (1 Cor. 2:10).

But St. Paul gives us a remarkable hope in the face of the God of unfathomable depth:

“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

To do theology as a Christian is to be given a share in the mind of Christ. Theology is defined by St. Anselm as fides quaerens intellectum, “faith questing after understanding,” with the verb quaerens being the operative term for those interested in exploring ta bathē tou theou. I wholly concur with St. Augustine, Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus, “If you comprehend, it is not God.” I am not agnostic, because I believe God is knowable. I am apophatic, because I believe God is incomprehensible, always surpassing my mind’s capacity in its love-driven journey into Infinite mystery. Christ is God’s Word with a human mind, is the Way into the Truth of the living God, and the Spirit, who gives us a share in the mind of Christ, permits us to join in His sojourn into the Father’s Word; and so into the Father. Doing theology makes me want to say with Isaiah:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:6).

Blessed be God who filled my soul with fire!

Utterly terrifying, thrilling, more so every day.

Okay, so…

It’s that time of year again. This is Orientation Week at the seminary, classes begin next week, I am finishing grading final papers for a summer course and I have a family event this weekend. So we will see what things small, big or non-existent make it to this Blog between now and Sunday! In any event, my prayers are with my readers, and I would be grateful for your own prayers for my intentions.

In the mean time, I will leave you with two totally random offerings.

First, I thought I would share a window into my seminary work. Here is a brief presentation I give every year to new seminarians on our culture of “intellectual formation” at Notre Dame. I gave it yesterday morning. Click here.

Second, here is Sia’s To Be Human, produced for the DC movie Wonder Woman (which I loved).

Peace and joy.

A week again, but Mashley

Again, as last week, my week is full to the top. Then next weekend I give an educational immersion to deacons on the lay vocation. Kindly pray for this. I will return to writing here after these are over.

I will leave you Maria and Ashley’s latest cover, with Maria trying some super cool editing. Oh, and a tidbit: Ashley is wearing a Franciscan Tau cross blessed by Pope Francis.

Good God and Bad Romance

[This is a post that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing in fits and starts over months and months. It’s long, as my posts go, but it’s time to let it go, it seems. St. Benedict, pray for us!]

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. — St. John Paul II

I was talking recently with a gentleman who is a marriage and family therapist about Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. We discussed at length the tendency among some wonderful catechetical initiatives in the U.S. to idealize the ‘wonders of sex’ in a Catholic marriage. Whether it’s the relationship-building power of Natural Family Planning (or ‘fertility awareness’ as I prefer to call it c/o Dr D. Cudihy) or the theo-erotically charged claims found in elements of the Theology of the Body movement (as opposed to St. John Paul’s actual teaching), there can be a “Gospel of Prosperity” feel to some of the promises made to Catholics, e.g. spiritually ecstatic supercharged sex that will leave you feeling more fulfilled in your marriage than any of those secular couples out there who don’t know what we know.

Really?

While it is unquestionably true that data shows couples who internalize a Catholic moral-theological vision of sex and marriage fare better overall in terms of things like marital stability and overall contentment with the goodness of the marriage relationship — along with other very positive effects — there is simply no magic equation between “doing it Catholic” and marital-sexual bliss. Just having right ideas in your head doesn’t mean your whole internal and external world suddenly approximates those ideas. Nor does doing the morally right thing mean it will automatically give rise to pleasure and happiness. The recognition and embracing of any truth is only the beginning of a long journey of integrating that truth into the complex realities of our thinking, feeling, behavior, relationships, commitments, etc. Now, in a culture that has made sexual pleasure into an end-in-itself, that idealizes orgasms as supremely life-fulfilling, or that markets (lucratively) sex with products and techniques that “guarantee” maximal sexual satisfaction without any negative consequences (or children), it can be tempting for evangelizers to mime the illusion and promise that faith offers the same results within its own moral-theological vision. “All that and more (without the bad stuff)!” But, anyone who has actually tried to live either the capitalist-hedonist illusion, or its Catholic mime, knows, if they’re honest, that sex in marriage yields very uneven results.

The simple truth of the matter is that sex is only part of the far more complex reality of marriage, of two different human beings who have chosen to join their very different selves into a shared experience of life. The choice to marry is itself extreme! Just think: a man and woman offering each other a total and exclusive self-gift of lifelong faithful love made for mutual benefit and for the good of those children they hope God will bless them with. So it is natural, it seems, to expect that sex would also in some way be an extreme experience of this enormous gift of love. However, the experience of sex involves and expresses the total real experience of real people in any given moment, itself hemmed in by innumerable limiting realities, i.e. health, psychological state, personal history, temperament, motives, location, time limits, ad infinitum.

Sex is the gift of the real self to a real other, not of the ideal self, and so requires all of the work and struggle and hard virtues that every other aspect of real married life requires to succeed. Sex sweeps up into itself everything else about us, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly. It does not acquire, by grace or by technique, a miraculous immunity from the larger contextual experience of who each spouse is. And like that larger life, sex is uneven and inconsistent and, in the Catholic vision, must always be about far more than merely personal or relational satisfaction. It’s about, among other things, love, justice, temperance, patience, new life, bonding, communication, reverence for the other, tenderness, trust, boundaries, the capacity to see life through the other’s eyes. It’s about a lot.

And sex, like the emotional life, serves as a loud and insistent primal cry from deep within to attend to other (often ignored) issues — things seemingly unrelated to sex — that require action if the marriage is to grow and flourish. Like emotional intelligence, sexual intelligence is very intuitive and bypasses the remarkable capacity of individuals or couples for rationalizing and self-delusion. While you can try to bypass sex’s insistent voice for a while, using psychological denial or alcohol or diversions or some such thing, eventually the truth your sex life was trying to tell you will surface elsewhere and demand your attention. Or your marriage.

Over the years, a number of men and women — Catholic and non-Catholic — have shared with Patti and me their trials and tribulations with sex in marriage. It is an honor to be allowed into that sacred space, and I tread with fear and trembling in terms of giving advice. Dear God, what can I say? I’m a theologian, not a therapist. Among these people, some struggle with a spouse insisting on using artificial contraception, some struggle with the challenges of using fertility awareness methods, some struggle with infertility, some struggle with each spouse’s very different approach to sex and physical intimacy, some struggle with finding time and space and energy in their very busy work-family lives for physical intimacy, some struggle with fear of another pregnancy (rational or irrational), some struggle with an inability to talk openly about sex with their spouse, some struggle with feeling sexually starved, some struggle with feeling sexually used, some struggle with being sexually apathetic, some struggle with feeling tempted to infidelity, some struggle with impotence or health issues that make sex difficult or impossible, some struggle with being pressured to have sex because it’s ovulation-time (or because it’s not ovulation time), some struggle with the too-fast move from affection to intercourse. I could go on.

Of course, every single honest couple would readily admit their own struggles, their uneven experience of sex, regardless of how prayerful or orthodox or open to life or holy they are. Sex is a participation in the larger reality of marriage’s self-giving, life-giving, grace-giving, co-laboring love — with an emphasis placed on the “part” of participation. Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.

My point is that sexuality in marriage is a fully human experience on every level, and when you marry someone, you marry a fully human, baggage-laden human. Sex is a struggle because life and love are a struggle. Marriage, for Catholics, is a Sacrament which is full of graces meant to aid the couple in allowing their unique experience of full-humanity to become redemptive and sanctifying. Grace builds on nature, heals and elevates nature from within. But, as God’s common practice goes, He does not ordinarily remove our struggles from us. Rather, He saturates our struggles in grace so that the struggle itself becomes no longer enemy, but friend. It becomes the primary means of being redeemed, and of growth in virtues like humility, trust, respect, tenderness, patience, fortitude, temperance and sacrificial love. As the Council of Trent put it, God leaves behind our yucky weaknesses (concupiscence) after Baptism “for the sake of the battle” (cf 2 Cor 12:9). In this case, God invites the couple to fight together to conquer sin, secure the lovely victory of love, and become saints together. St. Paul aptly describes saint-making marriage in Ephesians 5 as a Garden of the Cross, God’s privileged New Eden in which He chooses to (re)plant His sacrificial love in creation. Hence, God has planted the Cross in the middle of sex, making its greatest joy the struggle to love your spouse in body, mind and spirit.

The real joy of Catholic sex is getting a taste of the divine ecstasy of infinitely selfless, faithful, total, life-giving and sacrificial love that became incarnate and fumbled about with us. And that joy, when embraced within the whole of our reality — including God’s amazing grace — is deep, abiding and ecstatic. Ecstatic, I say, as it comes from the Greek contraction ek-statis, “standing outside yourself.” Sexual ecstasy in marriage is about making love. Not the cheap version used to describe an orgasm’s passing oxytocin rush, but really making love. Ecstatic love calls you outside yourself deeper into that one-flesh union you pledged in the beginning. Because in the final analysis, true joy is the fruit of being all about the other, about being into their joy.

“…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

This was certainly the rationale St. John Paul II used when he made this point:

Since in marriage a man and a woman are associated sexually as well as in other respects the good must be sought in this area too. From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved. This is implicit in the principle which we have already so thoroughly analysed, and which excludes exploitation of the person, and insists on love. In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.

Let me say to bring an end to this overly long and rambling reflection, all married people should have some trusted person (or couple) in your life with whom they can share their struggles. Whether as an individual or as a couple. Don’t keep your trails shrouded in secrecy. Wise friends, confidants and couples have brought me immense strength these years!

One husband once said to me as we talked about his struggles in marital intimacy, “It just shouldn’t be this much work.” I said, “Really? Are you kidding? Yes it should. Sex for us Catholics is about love, and love is damn hard work. If you think it’s just a cheap thrill, an easy fix, a quick path to happiness with her, you’ll be permanently frustrated. This isn’t Disney, it’s reality. So get to work…”

But if I had memorized the words of Pope Benedict, I would have said this instead:

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

Prune us, Lord, that Patti and I might, by our Yes, in sex and in life, become fruitful branches on the vine.

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

Resume in July

After taking a hard look at my schedule this past weekend, it became clear that I need to take an intentional 3 week break to attend to lots of large commitments I have coming up. I will resume in July.

Thank you for reading my work and, for those who do, responding to it. I never take that for granted.

Pray for me and I for thee. God bless you abundantly.

Sunset on June 10 near our home. #beautywins

 

Mother’s Day 2017

Statue at Castelpetroso. pinimg.com

To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war. — Pope Francis

Happy Mother’s Day!

For today’s reflection, I will not claim to pronounce my wisdom on motherhood but only share the witness of a few mothers I admire immensely.

I was sitting at lunch the other day at work and someone asked, “Who are the moms you admire most that you know personally?” Without hesitation I said, “My wife, my mom, my sister.” Later that night, I thought of a running list of others whom I have known over the years. Too many to recall. That night I wrote a rambling reflection in my journal:

+ + +

These women I think of here as I write — so many I have known! — are women with biological children, adopted children, foster moms and moms with ‘spiritual children’ whom they have taken into their care, their love, their attention, their heart, their prayer.These women, wildly diverse in so many ways, demonstrate the strength of tenderness and the ferocity of selfless love. They are each flawed and fall, grow weary and faint. No idealizing here. How many of them I have listened to share with me their own sense of failure and lament bitterly their own sins and failings. Suffer under the weight of inner trials and tortures of the mind. Yet each of them is, somehow, by indefinable grace, undaunted by their own fissures and fractures, making even of these channels of grace for others. Just like the song says: “I get knocked down, but I get up again; You are never gonna keep me down.”

Their very biorhythms are written in the language of life-giving sacrifice, of love that carries the weak, feeds the hungry, gives a home to the homeless. These women are nurturing and demanding, protective and encouraging. They inspire trust yet worry, demand their children get enough rest yet exhaust themselves, empty themselves out in order to fill, delay gratification to make sure needs get met. As with their bodies, their minds and hearts are always turned toward the well-being of their children. Circadian rhythms inscribed in waking love. They don’t seek accolades for the thousand duties they perform every day, but dole them out when appropriate to encourage their children in virtue. Their need to be liked by their children is superseded by their steely resolve to wade into the thickets of relentless resistance to raise virtuous children — the unsung martyrdom of tough love. Indeed, they undergo the trials and agony of gestation, labor and delivery throughout the entire span of each child’s life, and beyond.

Archbishop Romero’s words beautifully describe these women:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
When I was 4 years old, my mom tells me, she was pulling me in a wagon and when she turned back to me and smiled, I said to her: “I love to look at your face.” Mothers are living sacraments of God’s highest attribute — His tender compassion, raham. In her face, the primal vision of God after birth. In her face, God renounces invisibility, refuses to hide His beauty and discloses His most secret countenance. There we are meant to rest. Psalm 131:2:
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul.

When Patti had her first miscarriage, she suffered in body and in spirit in ways I cannot even hope to express worthily in language. All women who have suffered this – or the death of a child at any age — know this well. 2 Cor. 2:12: “I heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” No facile words of piety can dull the pain of death in the womb, but can only make it redemptive. She cried out to God as she miscarried in a way, with a depth that I could never fathom. Only receive and echo. I know that this depth of prayer is reserved to mothers. Even Jesus, as New Adam, needed His Mother by the Cross, New Eve, to “fill out” His suffering and perfect His prayer of compassionate love crying out to the Father.

When Patti wailed aloud with heaving sobs, “Why?” … I could not speak, could not breathe, could not ease her pain, not fix. Could only accompany. I grabbed hold of the tassel of her prayer, I am saved in her childbirth. She labored our child into Life, the universe shook.

On her merits, womb of His merits, all my hope rests.

+++
I asked four women I know to text me in a sentence or two what they love most about motherhood. I’ll let them have the last word:
 +++
Thank you for asking: To be not only an intimate witness to life unfolding, but to the Holy Spirit manifesting in a unique way in each child. It’s breathtaking, and incredibly humbling.
Or:
Purest joy.
+++
Hmmmm. I could say it’s picking out the chocolate in their Halloween bags to save them from themselves… It’s hard to put into words; for me, it’s being given the ineffable gift of a human being who is part of yourself and at the same time completely other and God’s and witnessing them becoming the sons and daughters the Lord loved them in to being to become, because of my being their mother and in spite of that too!
+++
Being a mother is empowering in a way that no other thing in my life has allowed, empowering in the sense of “tikkun olam” – fixing the world on a the physical ground level. It is like the individual transformation that includes training and intuition, to find a lost child in a store and gather them to restore them to their mother (not creepy but motherhood); to tell any teenager, mine or random, “what are you thinking, that will kill you?!?” (not a meddler, but a mother); to tell young college students “is that worth losing your integrity over?” (not a moralist but a mother); to fuss over tired men & women who show up in my home-with food and rest (not a seductress, but a mother). It is not to say that these things cannot be done by women who aren’t mothers, but I can get to the business quickly without explaining while someone else simply says, “no worries, she’s a mom.” And that says it all.
+++
I suppose one of the best parts of being a mother for me is being able to love so completely such amazing human beings and know that I had a part in their creation and formation. I am in awe of my children! Such sweetness, such glimpses of God himself, is so beautiful to experience as a mother.
Awesome.

Extra Friday edition: Jane Elizabeth update and prayer request!

As you know, I rarely every use this blog to offer service announcements, prayer requests, and such. But last year I made this story an exception, and will do it again. Here is an update from my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Miller:

Thank you so much to all of you who have been praying for Jane Elizabeth and who have been asking me where we are in the process for her visit for medical care at Padre Pio’s hospital, Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza. Especially during these seasons of Lent and Easter, these prayers have been much appreciated!

I have just heard from Fr. Zachary Oburu in Uganda, and Archbishop Emmanuel Obbo of the Archdiocese of Tororo and a lawyer have gone over all of Jane Elizabeth’s documents for her travel visa. All of the necessary documents from Uganda are present! We need only letters from Padre Pio’s hospital to apply for the visa. These have not yet been sent out as Dr. Leonardo must wait upon authorization from the Puglia Region in Italy, which gives the necessary permission.

For some unknown reason, Dr. Leonardo has been awaiting this authorization for three months, both for Jane Elizabeth and for three other patients. He is going in person either tomorrow, April 28, or Tuesday, May 2, to seek this permission from the doctor in charge. Please pray that the authorization for Jane Elizabeth and for the three other patients will come quickly and without delay, so that we can proceed to obtain her visa and the tickets for Italy!

Thank you again for all of your prayers, and please know that we are also praying for you and for all of your families, especially for those who are sick.
God Bless you all!
Yours in Christ,
Jennifer E. Miller, STD
Professor of Moral Theology
Notre Dame Seminary

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Intermittent appearances

Christ is risen!

I hope all have a joyful Easter Octave this week.

As I head into the end of the academic year I am entering into a very consuming stretch of work, so my posting here will be intermittent at best. Pray for me and I for thee.

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I will leave you with one meditation for this stretch. Blessings!

The Octave has begun in earnest today, Monday, called both Bright Monday and the Day God laughed. It concludes next Sunday with the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday, which is a fitting summation of the whole of God’s work, from the first instant creation sprang into being out of nothing, to the re-creation of all things in the Resurrection of Christ out of the nothingness of death.

Mercy is love creating, healing, forgiving, renewing all that it touches. Mercy is the substance of the new creation.

Christ is risen!

Jesus’ bodily resurrection is not resuscitation, as was the case with Lazarus or the son of the widow of Nain, precisely because Jesus’ coming to life again does not mean a return to life in this world. Rather, the resurrection of Christ is a second “Big Bang,” a re-creative event that inaugurated a new order of existence, a new creation governed by a new law: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). By His death of self-sacrificing love, Jesus split the nucleus of death and released in His risen sacred humanity the infinite energy of divine mercy that “makes all things new” (cf Rev. 21:5). Pentecost, which is a glorious coda at the end of the Easter season, opens that Big Bang up to all of humanity, allowing us who join in the re-creative energies of the risen and ascending Christ — by acts of faith, hope and charity — to extend His detonating mercy to absolutely everything.

By becoming saints.

Watch carefully what Jesus does over the next 40 days of appearances. The characteristic law and order of the Kingdom of God, the new heaven and new earth, can be discerned in the nature and activity of the Body of the risen Christ — in His resurrection appearances and in the members of His mystical Body, the Church. In fact, the Church, born at Pentecost, is meant and sent to reveal to all of creation (Mark 16:15) the inauguration of the Kingdom’s new law and order here and now, within this world.
What does that look like?

When the old creation, still under the power of death, says of the children of light, “See how they love one another,” we can be certain that the old order is passing over into the new. That what happens in Eucharistic transubstantiation is making its way out of the Chalice and off of the Paten out into the enslaved world that awaits the freedom of God’s children. Seen from this vantage, miracles — Eucharistic or otherwise — are not to be understood as the transgression or violation of creation’s natural laws, but rather as a revelation of the sacramental transfiguration of this world’s laws by the irruption of the new creation into the old. All of the Sacraments, but above all the Eucharist, effect this change. Transubstantiation is not some bizarre trick God plays, or a crazy logic puzzle, but rather is the premier sign of how the new creation transfigures the old — not violently replacing or destroying the old, but peacefully, gently, quietly, hiddenly transforming this world’s “substance” into a new order of existence that originates in Jesus’ risen Flesh and Blood.

A new order suffused with self-wasting, self-giving, healing, forgiving, patient, kind love. A new order that produces a St. Josephine Bakhita (1869–1947), whose body, marked with the scars of human cruelty, remains today a stunning sign of the incorrupt life of the new creation spoken into being by words of mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). For she said, “If I met those slave traders who kidnapped me and treated me so cruelly, I would kneel to kiss their hands, because if that had not happened, I would not be a Christian and a religious today. Poor things, maybe they did not know they were hurting me so much: they were the masters, I was their slave. Just as we are used to doing good out of habit, so they did that by force of habit, not because they were wicked.”

Listen closely to the readings every day of this Easter season and be attentive to the characteristics of this newness; of what new things emerge in the risen, uncontainable Christ and in His Body, the Church. And then be exceptionally attentive to how He accomplishes this new creation in, with and through you at each moment, bit by bit, making all-things-you, new.