Healing put to the test, Part I

Taken from amazon.com

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. — 1 John 4:1

Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly desired nor is it from them that the fruits of apostolic labors are to be presumptuously expected. Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to what is good — Lumen Gentium 12

I wanted to share with you today a series of blog posts written by a friend, Mario Sacasa, LMFT (found here: https://mariosacasa.wordpress.com/). Like the recent letter published by the Fathers of Mercy (here), these posts address important concerns related to certain Catholic faith-based healing ministries. These ministries Mario refers to in his posts variously blend elements of psychology, demonology and mysticism/spirituality into a set of strategies for seeking healing from God. The concerns Mario raises I also share, and I am grateful he has made a serious contribution to a very important conversation.

Over the years, I  have had numerous interactions with Catholic faith-healing movements like the ones Mario describes. I have grown increasingly concerned over the last 20+ years with some of the directions that have been taken in those movements. I am grateful that Mario chose to engage publicly in a respectful and honest conversation, as these movements have public import in the Church as they continue to grow in influence. They require serious and ongoing discernment based on solid considerations drawn from both faith and science. Mario welcomes comments and dialogue on his blog.

I will share a few of my own related reflections tomorrow.

Narek, the Marginal Doctor

Taken from horizonweekly.ca

A new Doctor of the Church! I was so excited when I read the news yesterday I wanted to shout for joy (but it was 6:00 a.m. and I thought better)! Narek rocks.

Let me throw together a few thoughts, joining the online chorus that is swelling.

Pope Francis named the 10th century Armenian monk, St. Gregory Narek, the 36th Doctor of the Church. I love the writing of St. Gregory! He’s a poet to the core, and demonstrated amply, like the Hebrew prophets, that beauty is the truest form of divine discourse. Many of his theological and mystical-ascetical works are written as a colloquy — a dialogue with God — as was St. Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions. Theological colloquy offers such a deep insight into the nature of theological discourse which must always be, in the first instance, a dialogue with the revealing God himself. God reveals to us not mere data for speculative consideration, but Himself for consummating union. Here’s a sample of Narek’s writing from his famous Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart:

The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to you in the censer of my will.

Compassionate Lord, breathe in
this offering and look more favorably on it
than upon a more sumptuous sacrifice
offered with rich smoke. Please find
this simple string of words acceptable.
Do not turn in disdain.

May this unsolicited gift reach you,
this sacrifice of words
from the deep mystery-filled chamber
of my feelings, consumed in flames
fueled by whatever grace I may have within me.

As I pray, do not let these
pleas annoy you, Almighty,
like the raised hands of Jacob,
whose irreverence was rebuked
by Isaiah, nor let them seem like the impudence
of Babylon criticized in the 72nd Psalm.

But let these words be acceptable
as were the fragrant offerings
in the tabernacle at Shiloh
raised again by David on his return from captivity
as the resting place for the ark of the covenant,
a symbol for the restoration of my lost soul.

And, true to Pope Francis’ pastoral style, this doctor is chosen from the “margins” of the suffering church [incidentally, in 2012 Pope Benedict named a “marginal” medieval woman as Doctor of the Church, 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen. A genius. Sadly, so little fuss was made subsequently. Some time I will write on her]. The Armenian Apostolic Church (great documentary here), that traces its origins back to the 1st century, has a rich monastic, liturgical and theological tradition, and a rich history of saints and culture. But Armenian Christians also have a long history of oppression, climaxing in the horrors of the “Armenian Holocaust” genocide of 1915, carried out by the Ottoman Turks who slaughtered more than 1 million Armenian Christians.

The Armenian Divine Liturgy is magnificent in its poetry, sense of mystery and theological depth. One of the most cherished hymns of the Liturgy is called Khorhoort Khoreen, “O Mystery Deep.” I heard a lecture on it back around 2005 by an Armenian Orthodox priest and it b-l-e-w m-y m-i-n-d. Here are the words:

O Mystery deep, inscrutable, without beginning. Thou hast decked thy supernatural realm as a chamber unto the light unapproachable and hast adorned with splendid glory the ranks of thy fiery spirits.

Wow. If you don’t feel you have stepped onto terrifyingly holy ground when that is chanted, I don’t know if there’s hope you ever will.

I will end with a recited prayer for healing by St. Gregory. Through his intercession, may we all be healed unto the divine charity that is eternal life:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” — Genesis 4:10

A priest in his Ash Wednesday homily this week said, “St. Paul tells us to ‘be reconciled to God!’ But remember, my dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, most practically this means to us: be reconciled to one another. It’s easy to be reconciled to God. He’s easy to get along with. Not so easy is my difficult neighbor.” Considering the stories of global violence, I will share with you today three global witnesses of reconciliation that came to mind this week, two Christian, one Muslim.

St. Sudan

St. Bakhita. Taken from communio.stblogs.org

Sold in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum, in the Sudan, as a slave, St. Josephine Bakhita endured constant beatings, starvation and humiliation. The trauma of her abduction was so profound it caused her to forget her own name. The name she is known for as a saint was the one given to her by slave traders — bakhita, Arabic for lucky. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was resold again three times and then given away to an Italian merchant who eventually gave her her freedom. The kindness of this Catholic family led her to embrace their Catholic faith and eventually to enter religious life.

Near the end of her life, a young student once asked her, “What would you do if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation she responded, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

That’s a vantage I can only bow low before in awe.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” — Hebrews 13:7

Taken from chaldean.org

Here is a letter (from Zenit) written posthumously to Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni by a Muslim friend of his who is also a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Father Ragheed and three deacons were shot and killed in Mosul, Iraq, on Sunday after Mass back in 2007.

In the name of the compassionate and merciful God,

Ragheed, my brother,

I ask your forgiveness for not being with you when those criminals opened fire against you and your brothers. The bullets that have gone through your pure and innocent body have also gone through my heart and soul.

You were one of the first people I met when I arrived to Rome. We met in the halls of the Angelicum and we would drink our cappuccino in the university’s cafeteria. You impressed me with your innocence, joy, your pure and tender smile that never left you.

I always picture you smiling, joyful and full of zest for life. Ragheed is to me innocence personified; a wise innocence that carries in its heart the sorrows of his unhappy people. I remember the time, in the university’s dining room, when Iraq was under embargo and you told me that the price of a single cappuccino would have satisfied the needs of an Iraqi family for a whole day.

You told me this as if you were feeling guilty for being far away from your persecuted people and unable to share in their sufferings …

In fact, you returned to Iraq, not only to share the suffering and destiny of your people but also to join your blood to the blood of thousands of Iraqis killed each day. I will never forget the day of your ordination [Oct. 13, 2001] in the Urbanian University … with tears in your eyes, you told me: “Today, I have died to self” … a hard thing to say.

I didn’t understand it right away, or maybe I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. … But today, through your martyrdom, I have understood that phrase. … You have died in your soul and body to be raised up in your beloved, in your teacher, and so that Christ would be raised up in you, despite the sufferings, sorrows, despite the chaos and madness.

In the name of what god of death have they killed you? In the name of which paganism have they crucified you? Did they truly know what they were doing?

O God, we don’t ask you for revenge or retaliation. We ask you for victory, a victory of justice over falsehood, life over death, innocence over treachery, blood over the sword. … Your blood will not have been shed in vain, dear Ragheed, because with it you have blessed the soil of your country. And from heaven, your tender smile will continue to light the darkness of our nights and announce to us a better tomorrow.

I ask your forgiveness, brother, for when the living get together they think they have all the time in the world to talk, visit, and share feelings and thoughts. You had invited me to Iraq … I dreamed of that visit, of visiting your house, your parents, your office. … It never occurred to me that it would be your tomb that one day I would visit or that it would be verses from my Quran that I would recite for the repose of your soul …

One day, before your first trip to Iraq after a prolonged absence, I went with you to buy souvenirs and presents for your family. You spoke with me of your future work: “I would like to preside over the people on the base of charity before justice” — you said.

It was difficult for me to imagine you a “canonical judge” … And today your blood and your martyrdom have spoken for you, a verdict of fidelity and patience, of hope against all suffering, of survival, in spite of death, in spite of everything.

Brother, your blood hasn’t been shed in vain, and your church’s altar wasn’t a masquerade. … You assumed your role with deep seriousness until the end, with a smile that would never be extinguished … ever.

Your loving brother,

Adnam Mokrani
Rome, June 4, 2007
Professor of Islamic Studies in the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture,
Pontifical Gregorian University

“Love your enemies” — Luke 6:

Undoubtedly you have heard of the gruesome beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS, but maybe you have not heard of the testimony of the family of two of the men murdered, who were also brothers. A friend sent me a video from an Arabic Christian television interview with a brother of these two men. He offers his gratitude to ISIS for allowing the name of Jesus, spoken by some of the men before their execution, to remain in the video of the mass beheading. He also shares his/their mother’s astonishing sentiments in the face of such brutality. If you have 4 1/2 minutes it will be worth your time. Chick on the blog post title if you are reading an emailed version.

If you axe me….

photo 2

My girls, looking lovely for Mardi Gras 2014; and me, pitifully trying to look local.

Re-post from 2014. :)

It’s Lent now, but I wanted to take a quick retrospective and remember Mardi Gras day!

Now that we have been in New Orleans for nearly 2 years, I can confidently say, along with my wife, that I have fallen in love with this cultural island. Really. Truly.

I told someone up North how much I loved NOLA (New Orleans, LA), and they said with a slight hint of sarcasm in their voice, “Why?

It’s hard to say exactly why. Mostly it’s intangible. It certainly has to do with the good friends we have made here, but it also has something to do with the tangled mix of religion and culture. Like a good Bond martini, they’re shaken together, not stirred. Vice and virtue, wealth and poverty, race and genders cohabit in inexplicable ways. When I think of my brief experience here thus far, I think of a great menagerie of sumptuous food, plenteous drink, dazzling colors, meandering rivers, lazy bayous, irreconcilably diverse personalities, Cathedral square voodoo, mirror-hanging rosaries, the breastbone relic of Blessed Seelos, messy beignets, to-die-for Po’Boys, cultic football, devoted extended families, street corner jazz, Mardi Gras parades, abundant feasting, sudden fasting, crisscrossing canals, random gators, CC’s coffee, local accents that I simply cannot replicate, smooth Abita Amber beer, a mean Sazerac and oh so many other things. Local Catholicism can truly be defined the way James Joyce did in “Finnegans Wake,”

Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’

American author and devout Catholic Walter Percy aptly described NOLA’s island-like identity:

New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont St. Michel awash at high tide. One comes upon it, moreover, in the unlikeliest of places, by penetrating the depths of the Bible Belt, running the gauntlet of Klan territory, the pine barrens of South Mississippi, Bogalusa, and the Florida parishes of Louisiana and ending up in the French Quarter.

But it was after reading Earl Higgins’ very funny The Joy of Y’at Catholicism that I was confirmed in my love. His book plays wonderfully on these irreconcilably reconciled elements that constitute what Flannery O’Connor would call this Christ-haunted, though not necessarily Christ-centered, Catholic culture. And there’s just something about this culture that, if you let it, pulls you in no matter who you are or where you’re from. As Higgins says it, “In New Orleans even the Jews are Catholic!”

Since I am a born and bred New Englander, steeped in a more or less pragmatic, sacrcastic puritan ethos, maybe my greatest joy here is simply reveling in quelle différence!

Someone sent me this fun and upbeat music video reflecting on the local character of New Orleans. For fun, I’ll share it with you today:

“For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

CTA Digital iPotty with Activity Seat for iPad. Taken from media.boingboing.net

The question of what is the most genuinely human engagement with the daily explosion of new technologies is no simple question, but for those of us who are pioneers in raising children as members of the iGeneration it’s a necessary conversation that must be had often. So much good, so much bad, and even more ambiguities that haunt the space between the two. Let me share just one example of that conversation here.

Not long ago I was speaking with a parent and we were talking about this question. She shared their family struggle over the use of technologies in the home and had some really stirring thoughts. She gave me permission to share her general thoughts. I share her comments because her struggle is so real and honest. She and her husband have given lots of thought to this question and have devised their own plan over the years to try to create in their home a healthy balance. But they find that balance hard to strike and elusive. Her comments went something like this:

We keep telling them technology’s just a part of their life. Fat chance they’ll buy that line, huh? But my teens of course are the worst. My daughter, once she came right back at me and said, “No, Ma, it IS my life. It’s all my friends’ life. You just don’t get it because you’re old.” Once she said to me, “Why are you so strict? It’s ridiculous. NOBODY else is so strict.” I said to her, and I was ticked, “Because if we didn’t set limits you’d never get off!” She came right back at me, like a good teenager, “I get my work done. It’s how I stay connected with my friends; it’s how we talk; so you obviously don’t want me to have a life.” I said, “That’s not true! You don’t see it, but I do, your Dad does. When you’re on that stuff too much you get isolated and pull away from your family. You get like a zombie. And even when you’re with us for dinner or over at grandma’s or your uncle’s, you’re somewhere else; wishing you were on your iPhone.” … I didn’t sign up for this. Never imagined when we had kids in the 1990s that this would be our biggest parenting struggle. It’s everywhere. All the crap out there, trying to protect them. Get them self-control. It’s only supposed to be part of life, not life. The hardest part is that it feels like we’re the only family of our kids’ friends we know who draws these hard lines. So we look like wacko extremists. … I tell my kids, “When I was your age” — you know they roll their eyes when they hear that — I say, “When I was your age, I visited my friends’ houses. We’d sit in the bedroom and talk for hours. I would read books. I’d help my Mom pick herbs and veggies in the garden and helped make dinner.” They roll their eyes. “That’s real stuff,” I tell ’em, “not virtual. Real” I tell ’em, I was a normal teen and rebelled over this or that; and got bored with family stuff; but when I was home I was home. Like, face-to-face home.” It’s really hard to explain and they ALWAYS have something to say back about social media being realer and better because they can be friends with tons of people. But it’s different. It’s hard to explain to them, but I see it’s different. They look like bloody addicts when you take them away from their gadgets. Once when I was feeling very emotional, I put my hands on my daughter’s cheeks and pulled her face up from her iPhone and said, “See my face? It’s real. And I love looking at your face.” I put her hands on my face and said, “I love you. This is where life really happens. Skin and tears and kisses.” I kissed her and said, “Remember when you were little and we’d just snuggle in our bed in the morning and talk about everything? Why can’t I have you back again?” It was one of those rare times I dropped the “angry Mom” thing and let my guard down. We both cried and cried. It’s just so hard. I wish it wasn’t like this. Nobody prepared me for this. We’re the first ones to deal with an iPhone generation, right? No instruction manual.

Pope Benedict XVI once shared a thought on this struggle:

The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbor” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

I’d also like to promo a book written by a friend and colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, who shares some profound insights on this conversation from the heart of the Church: Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age.

Let me end with a fun video of a little girl and her parents engaging in the kind of “bedroom communion” the Mom I spoke with longed for:

Reading, Soubirous and retreating


First, this morning Brandon Vogt of Word on Fire launched a FREE video series at ReadMoreBooksNow.com I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You’ll learn tons of reading tips and strategies, including how to conquer the two biggest challenges that prevent you from reading more books. If you want to double your reading and remember more of what you read, check it out!

Second, today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes — happy feast and abundant blessings on all the sick.

Third, I am giving a retreat out of town this week so will not be posting until ~February 16th. Kindly say a prayer for its success.

Peace and all good.

Photo of St. Marie Bernarde “Bernadette” Soubirous, taken from barnhardt.biz

Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

An old post dusted off.

I was speaking with someone recently who had attempted suicide several years ago, and she gave me permission to share her insights. Everyone’s experience of depression and suicide is different, but it seems there are here some universal themes. I will offer just a few of those insights she shared.

She was and is a woman of deep Catholic faith.

Just love me

This woman had a number of catastrophic life crises happen to her in a fairly short amount of time and, as a result of the profound trauma, found herself withdrawing from her typically active life and self-isolating. She said it was a protective measure, as she could not talk about her pain with the many people who pressed her with well-intentioned questions and unsolicited advice. She said what she needed more than anything else early on was just silent, consistent, compassionate and non-verbal support. But, she said, most people found that too uncomfortable and maybe even too scary, as her inner world had grown so dark. Everyone wanted to fix her right away, tried to push her to verbalize everything. “I really get the purpose of mourning rituals now,” she said, “because they are pre-scripted ways to express your grief and hurt so you don’t have to talk; just do the rituals. But I had none of those then.” She said she wasn’t ready for fixing, or talking much. She just needed to know she was loved and supported, regardless. “And when I was ready to talk, I’d talk. It was hard for people to get.” The extreme pain was beyond words for her.

I thought to myself, what she really wanted was the “first response” of Job’s friends:

Now when three of Job’s friends heard of all the misfortune that had come upon him, they set out each one from his own place: Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuh, and Zophar from Naamath. They met and journeyed together to give him sympathy and comfort. But when, at a distance, they lifted up their eyes and did not recognize him, they began to weep aloud; they tore their cloaks and threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down upon the ground with him seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering. — Job 2:11-13

Her flight into isolation, she said, included God. She was always woman of daily prayer, but found herself unable to pray. She was numb. Angry. Confused. And soon, she said, she began to lose a sense of hope. “Hope,” she said, “for me, hope is my God anchor. God was always my rock. But God when seemed silent, absent, distant it was scary. When I lost sight of Him I lost my compass, my firm footing. My pain had no meaning without Him. Only He can make it all make sense in the end.” It was in this stretch of hopelessness that she first seriously contemplated suicide, simply as a way to end the pain. And were it not for a fortuitous encounter with a man of faith that helped her turn the corner, she said, she may very well have killed herself. A Christian co-worker gave her some passages from the Bible to read that related to her darkness. They pulled her back from the edge of the cliff. “I read them one day when I was alone in my apartment, and when I got to Romans 8:28, something in me opened; a light turned on.”

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

She was sure she’d heard these words before, but now they spoke to her, she said. “Jesus said them to me. I knew it was Him and that I wasn’t ever alone.” The message for her was clear: give me your pain, let me love you and I’ll restore your hope in my purpose for your life.

Saved by Hope

This made me think of Pope Benedict’s words in Spe Salvi,

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever. The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me…I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”.

This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This woman added one last point that powerfully punctuated her witness: “Without faith in God, who’s love is never not there, it’s very hard to keep hope when life grows bleak. My message to all who struggle with these thoughts is: even while you get help from other people, cling to God and to His Word. He’ll never leave you.”

La Petit Fleur

To end, I’d like to share, without additional commentary, the words of St. Thérèse. Her sister, Mother Agnes, mentioned to her a week before she died how terribly she had suffered. Thérèse replied,

Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation (Last Conversations 22.9.6).

About a month earlier she said to her sister, Agnes:

Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.

Again, another young sister who was helping to nurse Thérèse — Sr. Marie of the Trinity — later shared:

Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.

Words of St. Silouan the Athonite to a young priest who asked him how he might be saved, from keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk