I rely on the Word

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”

 

“I try to stay away from all secular music.”

[this tom tome is a re-post from 2014]

The world is in itself secular. — Pope Paul VI

The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs. — Vatican II

“I try to stay away from all secular music.” I overheard this comment over lunch during a retreat I gave, as the people sitting at the table next to me were talking about how difficult it is to live in such a “secular world.”

My interest was piqued, so I said to the woman who made the comment, “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, but can I ask you a question?” She said, “Sure.” “What do you mean by secular music?” She replied, “Oh, I just mean all of the godless music out there. You know, the trashy music about sex and violence.” I said, “So secular music to you really means music that promotes immorality?” She said, “Yeah, I guess. But also music that’s about worldly things and not about God.”

I decided to press it further. “This is really helpful. I love to learn from other people’s perspectives. Do you mind if I ask more questions?” She seemed open. “So do you think that for music to be good or worthy to listen to it has to mention God?” She said, “Well, not really. I guess my problem is focusing on the world and the secular, and not on spiritual things.” I continued, “Do you think the world has a spiritual value?” “Yes, if it’s connected to God.” I replied, “What does it mean to you for the world to be connected to God?”

At this point I was worried she was becoming uncomfortable with my inquisition, and everyone else at her table stayed silent. But after a few moments, she said, “If you use the things of the world to do God’s will, that seems like it would be somewhat spiritual.” I replied, “That makes sense. So going back to your original comment about secular music. What does the word secular mean to you?” She said, “Godless. Worldly.”

That was it. The words “secular” and “worldly” were for her both entirely pejorative terms. So, I thought to myself, how can one possibly speak about the positive value of this life on its own terms? What word do we use?

I pressed her further, “Okay, so fair enough. Then if you were asked by someone who was not Christian, what word would you as a Christian use to describe the goodness of this life now that you live in? You know, the world that includes things like money, the natural environment, social and political institutions, science, art, business, human love, suffering, tragedy, and so on. If you can’t use the words worldly or secular, what would you say?”

She paused and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can find a word. Maybe creation?” Then she said, “What word would you use?” I said, “World and secular.” We all laughed. I continued, “Here’s the thing, secular and world are words that Christianity treasures in its vocabulary. ‘Secular’ comes from the Latin saecula, which simple means ‘age’ or ‘epoch,’ and refers to the realm of time and space we presently inhabit in this world, in contrast to the realm of eternity, which is called the saecula saeculorum, the ‘ages upon ages’ that never end. For Christians, God is the creator of the saecula, the secular time-bound age we live in, and the saecula saeculorum, the endless Age to Come. So secular and world are in a sense synonymous. So to be secular and worldly are the way God intended us to be.”

She seemed puzzled, and said, “Then why does the Bible tell us that the world is against God or that we shouldn’t be worldly?” I replied, “Because the Bible uses ‘world’ in several senses. First, it is the ‘very good’ world Genesis describes, created by God out of love in the beginning. Second, world is used to describe creation in rebellion against God, which is what you described when you said ‘worldly’ in a negative way. And third, world is a description of creation as the ‘theater of redemption,’ as loved by a God who wants to redeem and heal it from its rebellion. As in John 3:16’s famous ‘For God so loved the world that he gave…'” I continued, “So we have to be careful not to conflate all the meanings of the word ‘world’ into the Second negative sense only. That would be a disservice to God’s view of things, ignoring two-thirds of the Bible’s meaning.”

At this point, the woman said, “Please, join us at our table.” I sat down and we continued our lively exchange. I said, “Okay, so can I rephrase your original comment about music?” She said with a chuckle, “Sure. Why not!” “Okay, so what you really meant to say was, ‘I try to stay away from all music in rebellion against God.'” Everyone laughed. She said, “Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth!” I went on, “But music that is about anything in God’s good world — about humanity’s attempt to make sense of that secular world in all its complexity, or about the drama of evil and the struggle to find redemption — these worldly themes would be okay to enjoy as a Christian? Or even to write and perform such music as a Christian?” She said, “Yup, I guess so.”

“So,” I concluded, “you do enjoy secular music!” She and all her companions all laughed and she said, “Yes! Guilty as charged.”

Then the woman said, “So why does the word secular just sound so bad? Get such a bad rap?” I replied, “Because in the last several centuries, western culture has come to define the secular without any reference to God, as a closed system that is not open to transcendence; not open to an understanding of the world as filled with God’s presence and action and glory. God was seen as a threat to the world’s autonomy, in some ways because certain prominent strands of Christianity tended to treat the world as hopelessly corrupt, condemned by God. Or as a mere thing to be used, subordinated to the really important things: religion, spirituality, God. I like to say, when Christians feel the need to debase the world to exalt God, or debase the material to exalt the spiritual, the world feels the opposing need to debase God and the spiritual in order to exalt the world and the material.”

I continued, “And inasmuch as Christianity privileges the negative Second Sense of world, beats up on the secular world or trivializes the importance of this life in the grand scheme of things, Christianity promotes and emboldens the very atheistic secularism it abhors. A Christianity that highlights rejection of the world as hopelessly tainted, or as alien to what is truly spiritual feeds atheistic secularism. And a Christianity that idealizes ‘fleeing the world’ into a totally ‘religious bubble’ as the highest expression of what it means to be Christian, makes those 99% of people called by God to immerse themselves fully in the secular world feel they have to choose between God and the world. Between being spiritual and being secular.”

The woman said, “Never thought of it that way.” I replied, “Think about it, if your best option is to at least mildly disdain the secular world in order to fully love God, those who feel the innate and powerful mission to give themselves to the secular world will be left with little choice. Of course there’s much more to the story, but that’s an important part.”

“So,” I concluded, “we people of faith who live in the world have to love the world even more than our atheist secular neighbors. But we have to love it the ways God does, in accord with His commandments and the law of love. And we have to realize that sharing in God’s love for a broken world looks like the cross. But the point is we must be lovers of His beautiful, broken world. So we really have to get our language clear on this or we just continue to feed the ever-deepening divide that has tragically divorced faith from life in the secular world.”

If I had had my Vatican II texts with me, I would have concluded with this:

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his secular duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.

Craigslist Confessional, Halving Burdens

Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice. — Pope Francis

I gave a day of reflection with a colleague last week to parish staff employees. It was a grace filled day being around men and women who serve on the front lines of the church, in parishes around the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The theme of the day was, “Come to me, all you who labor” (from Matthew 11:28), and focused on the need in ministry to learn to “rest in God,” to internalize the Sabbath, especially by practicing silence and listening prayer.

I reflected on how, in prayer, we can discover in the ‘silence of God’ not deaf ears, but an intensity of divine rapt listening that, when you become aware of it, is almost disconcerting. The first time I experienced that awareness in prayer, I immediately thought of just how deadly seriously God takes the psalmist’s request when we make it our own:

Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer,
and attend to my voice in supplication. – Psalm 86:6

When I met the late Polish Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, who was a close friend of St. John Paul II, and asked him what quality of the Pope stood out most to him, he said: “Ah! That is easy. Listening. It’s what people always commented most on after meeting him, saying, ‘He listens like no one I’ve known. Like you are the only person in the world that matters.’ And when you’d see him even years later, he would recall some detail from the conversation.” Then he said, “But I also like to say that he had to work at this as a discipline, as a work of self-mastery. And he himself, when asked, would say that he learned it above all in prayer, as God is the greatest of listeners.”

In my final presentation of the day, I told the retreatants, “As we are followers of the Great Listener, we Christians should be known everywhere as the world’s greatest listeners. People should remark about us with some frequency, ‘See how they listen to one another!’ We need to allow Jesus to listen in, with and through us, and when we give Him that opportunity He can work great healing in others’ lives. Like the priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation who allows Jesus to listen to and pardon our sins with great tenderness and mercy, so all Christians should do the same, preparing others, unknowingly, for that Sacrament of Divine Hearing. Though love never stops at listening, it cannot exist without it.”

My grandfather wrote me once, “Always listen before and far more than you speak.”

When I checked my email after the day of recollection was over, my wife, who knew nothing of my talk themes, sent me this story. I was breathless…

“Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

If one doesn’t have a sense of humor, it’s very difficult to be happy; it’s necessary not to take oneself too seriously. Humor also helps us to be in good humor, and if we are in good humor it’s easier to live with others and with ourselves. — Pope Francis

Once when I was agonizing over family of origin issues, a friend of mine who has a quick and sometimes sardonic sense of humor, said: “All of our family dysfunctions will be the very source of endless comedic laughter as they are healed by the mercy of God.” A lovely play on Psalm 126:1-2:

When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs.

His words were, at that moment in my life, a healing balm.

My wife says she can always tell when I have been overwhelmed by some difficulty, and lost proper perspective, “because you stop making me laugh.” Humor exposes life’s absurdities and contradictions, plays on the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Humor surprises and safely raises taboo topics, releasing built-up pressure. And it can have a prophetic force, exposing evil or injustice or incompetence. The art of funny requires a keen sense of timing, context, audience, the ability to tell a story, etc.

Of course, humor can be used for good or ill, to lift up or tear down, to humble or to shame, to lighten up or mock, to reset perspective or desecrate, to tell the truth or deceive. Humor can help us face reality more honestly, but it can also help us to avoid dealing with reality.

But as I seek to define humor, I am warned by G.K. Chesterton, “It is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour.” Kind of like having to explain a joke to someone after you’ve told it.

Good humor is, as the saying goes, “the best medicine.” Psychologically, physiologically, spiritually. Which is why quite often my bedtime readings are comedians Dave Barry and Jim Gaffigan (we will see Gaffigan performing live in a few days!). I love to watch funny movies, TV shows or stand up comedy routines. Occasionally, I (re)subject my kids to one of the (tragically) 6 episodes from the TV series Police Squad. But my favorite sitcom, and my wife’s, is the Goldbergs. My favorite TV series ever.

I love to laugh, and to make others laugh.

I have always thought we should add humor as an eighth “spiritual work of mercy,” right after “comfort the sorrowful,” and believe that the ability to make others laugh is a charism of the Spirit that, at Pentecost, was meant to go with the Church to the ends of the earth. In the words of the sage Dr. Seuss, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

I frequently ask St. Philip Neri (patron of comedians) and St. Thomas More to obtain for me this gift so I can, above all, make my wife laugh.

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.” — St. Maximus the Confessor

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. in their hospice, one of the AIDS patients we served once said to one of the Sisters, “Where do you people come from?”

She had been overwhelmed by the new “economy” she experienced at Gift of Peace, which, in her words, “spit in the face of the law of the street — ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.” She said, “All my life, anytime anyone did anything nice for me, they always wanted something back. You didn’t give unless you wanted to take. This is the first place I’ve been where they do something nice, but don’t want something back.”

She was especially amazed that the Sisters and volunteers were able to ignore her initial expressions of bitter ingratitude and anger, and continue to care for her with kindness and patience.

After I heard her observation, I meditated on just how radical the implications of what she said were if that “economy” was lived out in every detail of Christian life. What a strange form of justice would emerge! To this effect, Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-36 are indeed mind-bending:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It seems, then, that Jesus touts mercy as the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mercy, which is love encountering evil, brokenness, sin, death, and overcoming it.

Where might we even start implementing such an impossible demand? Well, by actively letting go of the need to be thanked, acknowledged or praised for the good we do. By working on refining our intention — the why of your action — from “what’s in it for me, on my terms” to “what is for God’s greater glory,” while trusting in the supremacy of God’s manner, in the End, of rewarding good and dealing with evil.

Sounds lofty and glorious in speech, but translating it into everyday actions is an entirely different experience. Brutally hard, as the present economy is infected by the logic of sin.

In service to purifying their intention, St. John of the Cross counseled his fellow Religious to frequently seek out opportunities to do kindnesses to those notorious for ingratitude. Why? Yes, to help purify their intention, shifting the center of gravity from the needy ego to the God-neighbor.

But also it was to imitate God in offering the unworthy and ungrateful an opportunity to discover in us a new way of being human, pattered after God’s economy of salvation. In other words, by imitating God in this way, we offer others the invitation to be saved.

By looking at us, they can say: “Oh, that’s why I would want to be saved! To be like him, like her!”

Or, even better, maybe I could say that by choosing to do good to those who cannot, or will not do good to us in return, we allow ourselves to be saved by the merciful Father.

And being saved means being made capable of loving as God loves, with God’s love, plain and simple.

While we will always find reasonable reasons for not acting in such a way to this or that nasty, ungrateful person, faith challenges us to risk each day a new way of seeing the world, a new way of acting toward others that makes mercy the new normal. The cognitive dissonance this risk  causes should remind us that mercy is indeed as odd a form of justice as a crucified God is an odd manner of wielding divine omnipotence.

The woman at Gift of Peace ended up being baptized. Why? She said, “if your Jesus is anything like these women, I want to know Him.”

Yeah, that.