Missing the Mockingbird’s dive

A journal entry from a month ago:

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About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star. — Annie Dillard

I have to say that, for me, one of the bitterest curses of the smartphone is its power to distract from the beauty, surprises and annoyances of the real world. As we look down at our glowing screens, mediating a self-selected (or ad driven) reality, will miss the unruly, unpredictable epiphanies of earth, sea, sky or faces around us. And as we are repeatedly immersed in streaming Xfinity megabits per second, our minds dull, become impatient to the unhurried and un-swiped pace of life.

I try hard not to hate on smartphones. They offer immense advantages, obviously, and they are a staple of life now. My problems with them are my problems, and I know some virtuous users. But it becomes harder and harder for me to not grieve their negative effects. It’s been almost two years since I re-adopted a flip phone, after I realized in the smartphone I had met my match. I had been seduced by the allure of voice-to-text, seized by that low buzz itch to check news alerts, social media updates, search articles, look something up, listen to YouTube or Spotify — oh, and back to more voice-to-text.

I disliked who I had become. But there I was. Though I’d won the rationalization battle, I’d lost too much of my inner freedom.

That is, until the day my 92 year old God-inhabited mom, who had been trying to tell me something while I was screen-gazing, accosted me in a rare moment of impatience: “I’m glad I was born when I was. We didn’t have those things. We talked.”

I looked up and woke up.

A few flip-phone beneficial side-effects: My five senses reawakened to the world around me. My geographical imagination (without a phone GPS) rekindled and I rediscovered the wonder of getting lost and asking for directions. My attention span refocused and expanded. I’ve been reminded of the arduousness of meaningful communication. I’ve gloried more readily in fleeting moments that escape recording, and labor to have them inhabit my soul.

I really believe a new “Christian distinctive” should look something like this: We are the new radicals noted for strolling on a beach, sitting on a porch, walking in a mall, swinging in a park, waiting at a bus stop, standing in line at a checkout, exercising on a treadmill, eating in a restaurant, sitting alone at home, or (gasp!) driving a car … without once looking at our phone.

Yes, we are the Masters, and these are our phone-servants.

Tertullian wrote in the third century, “See, [the pagans say of Christians], how they love one another…” Maybe a new Tertullian will write in 20 years of Christians:

The pagans marvel about us, saying, “See how they love one another! At extreme length they dwell together without a device in hand or in ear. They live in the world with such serenity and attentiveness, even in silence and boredom. Have they gone mad?”

And among our number, maybe a new St. Francis can again arise, per Pope Francis’ vision:

Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever St. Francis would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.

His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”.

Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.

By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

Stop, and try to see a Mockingbird dive…

Happy!

Happy New Year! Happy Feast of the Mother of God! Happy World Day of Prayer for Peace! Happy 8th day Circumcision of Jesus!

I am taken up this week with out of town guests, work and such, so likely will not post for a time. I have been grateful for the time I have had this last week to write, and most grateful for the comments left here.

This Blog began, eight or so years ago, as a venue for sharing my thoughts with an amazing and small group of Catholics in Des Moines who met with me bi-weekly as a “Dead Theologians Society” to talk about God and churchy stuff. Those were special days in my life. Then, I just kept writing at the encouragement of some friends.

Obstat is totally random in content, free form in style, untidy and often rambling in structure, and affords me an uncontrolled space to think-aloud about whatever comes to mind in a way I cannot do anywhere else. But more, it allows me to think with and through my readers, which is a privilege I never take for granted. And what gives me the greatest sense of gratitude and awe for God’s stupendous providence is when readers tell me a post was timed well in their life. THAT is often what keeps me writing when I want to quit now and again.

May 2019 be filled with every good for you, and may you resolve to pray with such fidelity that God’s dream can shape your life:

We are the dream of God who, truly in love, wants to change our life through love. He only asks us to have the faith to let Him do so. We can only cry for joy before a God who re-creates us. God thinks about each one of us, loves us, dreams of us, dreams of the joy that He will rejoice with us. Have you ever thought, “The Lord dreams about me, he thinks about me, I am in the mind, in the heart of the Lord”? Have you ever thought, “The Lord is capable of changing my life”?

The Lord is capable of changing us, through love: He is in love with us. What do I have to do? The answer is simple: “Believe. Believe that the Lord can change me.”

Faith is giving space to this love of God; it is making room for the power of God, for the power of One who loves me, who is in love with me and who wants this joy with me. This is faith. This is believing: it is making room for the Lord to come and change me. — Pope Francis

Pause

Well, the week upcoming is daunting, so I will predict a full week respite from my daily Inbox invasions.

Let me leave you with a new TØP song, rejecting suicide as a choice-worthy option for dealing with life’s pain. And even more, rejecting the culture of glorifying (“neon gravestones”) suicide. As Tyler sings,

our culture can treat a loss like it’s a win … no

I love TØP.

Marriage, Children and Humility

Love, on the other hand, is marked by humility; if we are to understand, forgive and serve others from the heart, our pride has to be healed and our humility must increase. — Pope Francis

Today’s Gospel about marriage and the humility of children made me think. So I will subject you to a few of those meandering thoughts.

A seminarian in a class I am teaching asked me the other day, “What virtue is most important in your marriage?” Without hesitation, I said, “Humility.” He said, “Why?”  I said, “Because marriage has to be grounded in radical honesty, in a willingness to speak the truth and a willingness to hear truth as the other sees it. Humility is truth, and no one, if you’re doing it right, makes you face the truth more than your spouse.”

He seemed surprised, and followed up by asking, “But what about love?” I said, “Yes, yes. Of course. Without love, humility becomes shaming and degrading. But love has nowhere to grow if there’s no tilled earth for it to grow in. Humility is all about cultivated ground, dealing with messy dirt, being down to earth. And because you know your spouse isn’t going anywhere, the definition of love, you never fear the truth of who you really are will drive them away.”

Fairly regularly, my wife and I ask each other for an honest appraisal — Is there anything I need to hear from you? She will usually preface her honesty with, “Do you really want to hear what I think?” I often will say back, “Well, it really depends on how bad it is.” The beauty of that gift is that it keeps both of us grounded in reality, provided we each are willing to hear what is said and make changes when needed. It also keeps me from believing that the more superficial masks I put on during the day are really me. Prayer and marriage function very similarly in that respect.

Patti is a polished mirror by which I see in exquisite detail the good, bad and ugly. And I strive to be the same for her. Once when a young couple preparing for marriage met with us to talk, the guy asked me what I thought Patti’s greatest gift to me was. I said, “Two gifts. Being mother to our children and keeping me real. She makes me feel a hundred feet tall and very tiny, all at once.”

My first spiritual director back in the late 1980’s, an old monk, said to me once, “Remember, when people flatter you, think of me. I know the real you. That’s where you need to stay anchored.” He also said, “In spiritual direction, if you ever feel you have to please or impress your director, it’s over. Find someone else right away. It only works when you can bear your soul as it is, face yourself as you are.”

When my children turn 18, I ask them each for an honest reflection on my parenting. On how they viewed me as a father. And I say, “Be brutally honest. Don’t spare my feelings.” Each has been so different in their perspective. It’s a bit terrifying asking them, and it’s humbling to hear what they say. But it has opened our relationships out into adulthood and toward friendship … and that for me is the sweetest fruit of being a parent.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” — Rom. 12:21

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The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. — Shakespeare

During these days of trial in the church and the world, when the failures of humanity seem to tower, it is now, above all, that Christians must show to the world “the quality of mercy.”

Mercy is not the absence of justice, it is the fusion of justice and love. Mercy is what love becomes when it meets injustice. Mercy is not soft or weak, but is infinitely more fierce and costly than justice alone. Justice alone condemns and contains, rages and seeks the punishment of the evildoer in order to bring justice the wronged. But justice wed to love for the persecuting, reviling, evildoing, hating, cursing enemy seeks restoration, redemption and remedy for both victimizer and victim.

But mercy is infinitely more extreme than just “seeking” these things.

In Jesus the fusion of love and justice compels Him to embrace the Father’s command to identity with the innocent victim and the guilty victimizer, to bear their burdens that both might be saved. In the Passion He drank our poison to become our antidote. This is what made Him sweat blood and bargain with the Father in the Garden of Agony (Mk. 14:36). This:

For he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

From the Cross, wholly identified with all innocent victims, Jesus pleads for the victimizers:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. — Lk. 23:24

In fact, He identified with evildoers in the most radical sense imaginable:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Cor. 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — Gal. 3:13

St. Paul, having himself become Christ (Gal. 2:20), embraces this same terrible logic of mercy in response to his (Jewish) people’s rejection of the Messiah:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. — Rom 9:3

In a most stunning passage from Pope Benedict, we see this explosive tension between justice and love erupts within God as a war:

God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

We who are in Christ, who have fallen deep into the paschal waters of Baptism, who dare sign ourselves with the Cross, who ingest the Food and Drink born of this war internal to God, must evince, must live out this same ethos of mercy. Seventy times seven times a day.

Whenever we embody this crazed love of our extremist God, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

The world outside of Christ either condemns or canonizes evil, but Christians carry evil — and evildoers — on their backs as a Cross (Lk. 9:23), by every means possible. By prayer and reparative penance, by fasting, by forgiveness, by alms or by charity-drenched fraternal correction. And in a million other merciful ways.

In fact, if we resolve to be tough and fierce in the face of evil as disciples of the Christ, with heroic courage, we must don those most fearsome weapons of the Cross that alone cause hell to shudder in terror. These were the same weapons with which the dead Christ harrowed hell’s infernal abyss. These are the weapons by which martyrs conquer evil.

Are we courageous enough to wield these weapons in these dark times? Let’s dare…

…as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, to clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

The great danger in this storm

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Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices. — St. Teresa of Avila

Here is a great danger I myself face during these time of church upheaval: taking my eyes off of Jesus, fixing my eyes on the storm, only then to become consumed by things other than grace.

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” — Matthew 14:28-31

A mentor of mine wrote me a lengthy letter last week to encourage me in what he imagined was a difficult time for me working in a seminary. He’s much older, has a long, wise view of things. As I often do, I take letters and then, after reading them, re-express them in my journal to make evident what I received from them. I do the same with conversations, homilies, movies, etc. After re-writing his letter, I was filled with a new resolve and focus. Thanks be to God for loving and wise mentors.

Among many things he said that I digested, he said, “During this time, my brother, double up on your prayer time if possible. Above all, keep your anchor in God. The Enemy is skilled at using such turbulent times to set an ax to our prayer as It knows well prayer alone gives free reign to God. This alone It fears.”

He also said,

… Be amazed at the willingness of public figures in the church to cast their half digested opinions to the wind with arrogance. Amid this sea of rash judgment, maintain a spirit of charity at all times. Think this: speak of and to others as did Christ in the midst of his blessed Passion. You know Christ’s charity alone is the path of unity in the church that serves as a compass guiding our quest for truth. It is to be the signature of Christian witness. Judge yourself by the standard of the cross in facing evil.

… The world outside the church is watching us very carefully. What witness have we offered them? A model of civil discourse? Where do they see the fruits of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control]? Where do they see signs of grace super-abounding among us even as sin abounds? How is our response to failure and sin different from responses uninformed by those fruits, that grace? How many converts might we imagine running to the church after witnessing in us the difference God makes in facing what is our universal human plight? Again, Christ in his blessed Passion is the difference.

… And always comport yourself with sober judgment. Take great care with every word your write or speak. In such grave times, flee innuendo, irony, sarcasm, detraction. Confess in the Sacrament all your wasted, misused words that pollute and poison the air. Sobriety of reason, courage of character and care of expression are our tactics against the Liar that craves division. Re-read 1 Peter 5:8. Too many are intoxicated by their own words, arrogant in their self-righteousness.

… fast and pray twice for all you levy judgment on, whether fairly or unfairly. On second thought, thrice for all you judge unfairly. But pray seven times for the victims of these dark days.

… Above all things, keep in mind this is to be our final end, our ultimate criterion, the only witness worthy of the name Christian: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In these days, who would say this of us?

The letter concluded with St. Teresa’s prayer above. May we allow ourselves to be consumed by grace alone, so that the world might then also be…