To be freed

While diligence and industriousness are important virtues for any kind of work, they become vices when these habits serve as means to escape oneself
through excessive work, leading him or her to crowd out all other dimensions of life. Acedia [sloth] produces boredom not in work, but in everything else but work. — Michael Naughton

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a retreat on the importance of leisure. I focused on the importance of ensuring life is always marked by an ebb and flow between work and leisure, especially in a culture that equates productivity and worth, busyness and value, and reduces leisure to recovery from and for work.

Among the many definitions of leisure I proposed, I said leisure is a disposition of inner freedom (licere = “to be freed”) that makes one capable of receiving existence as a sheer gift and not as an earned reward. Engaging in leisure of this sort is a sign you have affirmed that being (“who I am”) precedes doing (“what I do”), and have ceased trying — at least for a time — to manipulate existence into being what you wish it to be, and not receiving it for what it is.

Leisurely activities, always carried out “without a why,” as ends-in-themselves, affirm what is most essential in life — beauty, truth, goodness, love, mystery. And they affirm relationships as primary, as the true ends never to be turned into mere means. As such, leisure requires time, patient waiting, silence, wonder and abundant love.

Leisure re-grounds our sense of worth and identity in the act of creation, in having been created by God from nothing as a gift freely given — our existence being a gift unsought, undeserved, unmerited, unearned.

We were not created to achieve some other end or goal, but simply for our own fulfillment (the achievement of which entails the fulfillment of all humanity and the whole of creation). “The glory of God is the living man.” God does not need us, but at every moment we exist because God wills us to exist. Wants us to exist. Period. Nothing else justifies our reason for being other than an infinite and eternally sustained act of gratuitous love emanating from the God whose existence is “without a why.”

Love is our origin, our end, our raison d’être.

Prayer in its deepest meaning is the act of freely submitting to God’s gaze of merciful love on the seventh day of creation. In prayer, we are willingly bathed in God’s willing Word: “Very good. Very beautiful” (Gen 1:31). And only those who consent in prayer to receive this gaze, even into their darkness, can choose to look out with this same gaze on all…

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.” — Luke 23:33-34

Worship is a confession of our gifted inalienable worth as we praise, bless, adore, glorify, and give thanks to the One “who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with thy kingdom which is to come.” Not because God needs such worship from groveling sycophants, but because worship rightly disposes us to receive all He has already given, from all eternity.

The most fruitful activity of man is to receive God.

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. – Psalm 127:2

In my talk, I said,

Amazing that God had to command the Sabbath, to command us to stop working. Command leisure. Sin makes us slaves to work, to busyness, to distraction, keeps us in the bondage of Egypt where we are not free to worship.

I’ve always thought how apropos it was that, on the gates of Auschwitz, the Nazis placed these words: Arbeit macht frei, “Work sets you free.”

If you feel worthless when you are not productive, busy or working;
or if, when you rest, you feel guilty,
as if you have not sufficiently justified your reason for existing as you rest;
or if you cannot endure praise for any sign of goodness or beauty in you,
but ever demur that you are unworthy of any praise;
or if, when you are not suffering in some way,
you feel you don’t deserve good or pleasure or joy for its own sake –
you need to sit at the feet of Queen Sabbath, who, as gift of God,
was sent to remind you of the words spoken at your conception:
“I love you: I want you to be.”

 

Holy (Unchosen) Family

[This will actually begin a break as I will be away from internet for five days!]

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. — Harper Lee

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of His rescue plan for the human race.

The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or like those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work or what our religion, race or ethnicity is. Or even what parish family we happen to belong to.

George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations, that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.

Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into — relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference — that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are ‘stuck to’ that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “you shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur — one “near by” — love encounters its highest calling.

Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.

The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the Kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.

G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The word “religion,” from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a People — many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.

This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the Cross by His neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as He obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.

I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather we fiercely believe, as a rule (§518), that the parish we belong to — are “bound fast to” — is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our land-locked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-by’s with whom God’s scheming Providence ✟ has arranged for us to learn love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.

May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-by’s, beginning with those nearest us at home.

Love your neighbor as your self

Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep. – Rom. 12:15

When I was in my early 20’s, I worked during the summers in a machine shop at a factory. I remember this one man named Gerry who was a real character, and who took me under his wing. He was a widower in his late 60’s, had a white beard stained by cigarette smoke and a gravely voice. And he was a bit of an armchair philosopher.

Once when we were eating lunch together in the break room, he said to me, “Son, you know what’s the most important quality a man can have in life?” I said, “What?” He said, “Magnanimity.” I smiled and said, “What does that mean?” He continued, “It means having a big-soul. Being the bigger man. Seeing everyone else’s success as your own. If everyone did that, the world would be a better place.”

And that was a perfect description of him, as he was a mentor to the core. Showing me the ropes, seeing me do better at my work, helping me avoid pitfalls — all these lit up his face. He very naturally embodied St. John the Baptist’s motto, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

The antithesis of Gerry’s beautiful virtue is envy, which St. John of the Cross powerfully captures as he describes the smallness of a ‘spiritual’ person’s envious soul — and then the greatness of the humble soul:

Learning of the virtues of others makes them sad. They cannot bear to hear others being praised without contradicting and undoing these compliments as much as possible. Their annoyance grows because they themselves do not receive these plaudits and because they long for preference in everything.

They develop a somewhat vain — at times very vain — desire to speak of spiritual things in others’ presence, and sometimes even to instruct rather than be instructed; in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have.

But if any envy accompanies love, it is a holy envy by which they become sad at not having the virtues of others, rejoice that others have them, and are happy that all others are ahead of them in the service of God, since they see themselves as so wanting in his service.

A Hidden Life

Again, I would like to strongly encourage you to see the movie about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter that comes out in theaters this weekend and next weekend. It is very intense, but very powerful.

My wife and I saw it at a film festival already, but I will refrain from commenting on specifics to avoid any spoilers. But I will say that, if I could choose a tagline for the movie, it would be that of St. John Paul II: “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.”

Lay fanatics

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics.

For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head.— Flannery O’Connor

I know a man who is a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Christianity, and was a church-planting minister for many years. Once, he and I took a long lunch sharing about the theology of the laity, and specifically about the above O’Connor quote. At one point in the conversation, he said something I found remarkable. He said,

Evangelicals really get what Catholics call the ‘lay vocation’ in the world, because they only have baptismal priesthood, since they jettisoned Ordained priesthood and Religious life. Those believers Catholics call ‘the laity,’ Evangelicals simply call Christians, and what Christians do is be good disciples by bringing Jesus into everything they do. They see the path to holiness everywhere …

… One of the most striking differences I noticed soon after I started getting involved in the inner Catholic circles was this tendency of Catholic leaders to see in wealthy or influential Catholics potential benefactors, while Evangelicals tended to see wealthy or socially influential people first and foremost as potential culture-warriors.

Or, I noticed when Catholics saw the fresh zeal of new converts, they tended to channel them into internal church ministry worker-bee activities, or into future vocations to priesthood and religious life — Evangelicals were more likely to disciple these converts as missionary movers-and-shakers in secular culture. My church had the motto, ‘change a heart, change the world.’

… Though I have noticed some progress on the Catholic side recently, on the ground what I described remains pretty much the default pattern. With some notable exceptions.

I then brought up the example of Tyler Joseph from Twenty One Pilots, whose early approach to music-as-mission was deeply influenced by his Evangelical faith, and by a pastor in the church, Five 14, which describes itself thus:

Our name, Five14 Church, comes from Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” We exist to bring light to a dark world.

As we finished our conversation, my lunch partner introduced me to a song by the Evangelical musician, Steven Curtis Chapman — “Do Everything.” He said Chapman’s song captures this Evangelical vision that the hard core work of grace is to empower the believer to do everyday things as a way to “tell the story of grace.”

I have posted that song here probably a hundred times, so here is one hundred and one.

The Meaning of Icons

I wanted to share the video recording of a lecture we had last Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary, where I teach. It is of Fr. Maximos Constas speaking on The Meaning of Icons. It is brilliant, as Fr. Maximos always is. He gave our last annual Catholic-Orthodox lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor, and we loved him so much we asked him to return!

He’s the only rockin’ Athonite monk I know. A genius, a linguist, a theologian, a historian, a warm human being and a connoisseur of great art. The kind of man you could speak with for hours, and forget time passed. The kind of man who, when displaying his vast knowledge of nearly any subject, doesn’t make you feel stupid, but wiser. In other words, he’s a teacher.

My son Michael recorded and edited the video (note the cool way he inserted Father’s slides!). He said to say that the video is a bit grainy because Fr. Maximos wanted the light dimmed for the Power Point slides.