Trust in an unseen God-made-visible

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Each year, thousands of men, women and children are innocent victims of sexual and organ trafficking, and it seems that we are so accustomed to seeing it as a normal thing. This is ugly, it is cruel, it is criminal! I would like to draw on everyone’s commitment to make this aberrant plague, a modern form of slavery, adequately countered. Let us pray together the Virgin Mary to support the victims of trafficking and to convert the hearts of traffickers. — Pope Francis

I spoke with a woman not long ago who has worked with a faith-based outreach to teenage youth victimized by the sex-trafficking industry. I have read articles and listened to presentations on the topic over the years, but every time I meet someone who is personally involved in this kind of work it shakes me to the core. History has demonstrated again and again that there lurks in humanity a dark and perverse drive toward enslaving fellow human beings for pleasure, power and profit.

The Hebrew’s story in Egypt is humanity’s story, and the words God spoke to Moses from the Bush were spoken over all ages:

I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters;
I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them
out of the hand of the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:7-8).

The Hebrew story is also the Christian story, as these “words of God” became flesh and tented among us. Hear in this section of the Nicene Creed striking resonances of the above Exodus text:

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

In Jesus, God “became man” not only “in accordance with the Scriptures,” but in accordance with the the entire human experience — even into bowels of hell, as the Apostles Creed starkly puts it, “He descended into hell.”

This woman I spoke with said something really profound about these young people’s plight in relation to God:

It is difficult to trust in an unseen God when what is visible appears to destroy any chance of redemption.

As she shared with me over an hour and a half’s time the details her faith-based approach to this work, and some of the extraordinary stories of how it brings hope in a hopeless place, I remembered my own experience 25 years ago working with the Missionaries of Charity. Specifically, I remembered this one young woman I came to know who had been sex-trafficked and was dying of HIV-AIDS when I met her. She said that she believed God had brought her to live with the Sisters before she died “to protect me from the men.”

“To protect me.” That phrase burned itself deeply into my memory and convinced me with new force that this was indeed the core mission of the Church in the world, to be God’s rescue made visible and audible. To extend the Incarnation and be Yeshua, “Yah rescues.” And Yah, an abbreviated form of the divine Name, Yahweh, is etymologically derived from the Name revealed to Moses from the Bush, “I Am” (Ex 3:14). The rescuing God is, and He is with us saying to every Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

1 John 1:1-4 exquisitely captures this mission that flows from the Incarnation of the Word:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship [koinōnia] with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I know a man who had a “near death experience” after suffering a grave cardiac event in his early 30’s, and after he’d recounted to me the remarkable specifics of what he had seen and heard, he said: “I know this probably sounds like wishful thinking, but I am convinced that if everyone had one of these experiences, and saw and heard what I did, there would be no more wars or violence or starvation. When you’re there you realize absolutely nothing matters — and I mean nothing — but love.” Then he said, “But what I realized after this happened was that we already have all of this in our faith. But like Jesus said [Luke 16:31], it’s never that simple.” I added, “Yup, makes me think of G.K. Chesterton’s satirical quip, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.'”

The world is teeming with God’s glory, but sin and ignorance conceal its vision from our eyes, its music from our ears. Faith, hope and love give us the liberated, liberating capacity to see and hear again, and the imperative — “Go!” — to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, liberty to captives by declaring in word and deed what we have seen and heard. The church is, as I once said here, the manifestation of the eternal God’s irrepressible ‘freaking out’ in our history to build a home for humanity to dwell in with Him; in safety.

This woman I spoke with also said, “And everything we do is soaked in prayer.” Indeed. And so we cry out unsparingly day and night to God in the face of all forms of slavery, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” (Is. 64:1).

Through me.

Let’s try.

You Want It Darker

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his last album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.

++++

Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. His Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited his Hebrew faith. Or at least its language, worship and narratives as he grasped for meaning at the edge of meaning; and of the grave. It was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death [in 2016] that utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and woke up to write.

His gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language (and tones) of the Kaddish, Jewish prayers for the dead. Cohen wants his poetry to find its light beneath the long shadow over the atrocities of history, especially those inflicted on the Jews, intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth. He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in the song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11). The first, but not last time it appears in Scripture. It punctuates the song’s relentless, dread reckoning with God’s seemingly complicit flirtation with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. More broadly, it seems to me, Cohen is grappling with the meaning of God’s permissive will — or His ordained will with Abraham — that has allowed death such immense power in the world, above all through the bloodstained hands of His own image, man.

Hineni, which is a word of obedient readiness, is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called; even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word, indeed “wants out” if the Dealer deals thus. He is not content to simply passively submit without protest against death into mystery. He wrestles, brawls with God. Like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33) and Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) and Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14) and Job in his anguish (Job 31) and Jeremiah in the face of plots (Jeremiah 20:7-18) and the psalmists moaning out of the suffering of exile and slaughter. Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice — even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, and its countless modern analogues, loom large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings, prays (?) this song.

When Cohen says “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord” to God, what does he declare himself ready for? Unresolved.

“Vilified, crucified in the human frame” — while it’s easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning, for a Jew the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes quaking dissonance. A shattering and terrifying paradox, really, as image slays image. Genesis 9:5-6. Cain, Abel; and the slaughter-bench of of history’s endless procession of iconoclastic/image-smashing murderers. Permitted, okay; but permitted to “murder and maim?” Why such horrific latitude? He wonders, grinds within….How does this work in the divine economy? A paradox to blame? Or is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself that is not merely content with some dazzling paradox?

The song is just brilliant. For me, here’s how: It is raw, shocking honesty and protest in the face of the night before the face of God, though not appearing to be rebellion, lays before God cursed evil in an unjustified, un-rationalized state. “Here it is, Lord.” Not cushioned or romanticized or coated or softened, but prayed out of into God. It reminds me so much of absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among the psalms that ends its search for God in total darkness. Lamenting beneath heaven’s dread silence. Or I think of the Book of Lamentations — makes you sweat if you really pray into it. At night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward. Of God, Jeremiah says:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (3:1-14; 17-18)

Such prayer, uttered by those who “descend into hell,” is prayer “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1) in the truest sense. There in the abyss (Psalm 42:7), hope can shine brightest as hope fully blooms only in hopeless spaces where its anchored strength is needed. God cannot redeem what He does not assume, make His own, and He cannot assume what we ourselves do not surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a form of redemption that — St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night — makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed thus on the cross, in His native tongue. Eli! Eli!

I don’t know if Cohen would consider this text a sung (or groaned!) prayer or not, but he is voicing the anguished, tortured prayer of those who sink into the pit, are mired in depression, succumb to the gas chamber, suffer tragic loss, witness the destruction of the innocent — but still turn these upward.

Why have you? Where have you gone? How long, O Lord? Wake up! Such a vision of real faith — Hineni — seeks no facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

I think here of David Bentley Hart’s echo of Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, the monk protests against a kind of God who intentionally “uses” human suffering for His own good ends:

Answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be architect on such conditions?

In an article he wrote after the 2004 Tsunami, Hart said:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Cohen shares this same protest that the God who “became sin” Himself took up on a cross, in hell. Passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis.

Hallelujah.

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

Mashley’s Promise

So yet another non-post post. Before I head out of town on a road trip, I was able to prevail on my daughter to allow me to post her and Ashley’s new music video here, even though they decided not to publish it on their YouTube channel because the audio was a bit off. But I think it’s practically perfect in every way, in my absolutely unbiased opinion. Especially their devised harmonies. It’s a cover of the Radiohead song I wrote about on June 11, I Promise. Makes me love the song even more.

Maria features piano for the first time. Enjoy!

I promise

ashtonlamont.uk.com

My oldest daughter Maria introduced me to the band Radiohead two years ago with her Mashley cover of No Surprises. Recently, she and Ashley went to their concert in New Orleans. Loved them. I’ve not listened to much of their music, but all I have heard I have liked.

Radiohead re-released a 20 year old song about a week or so ago. It’s called, I Promise. Eerie and haunting. According to a number of articles I read, the lyrics consider the dis-ease of disconnection and isolation that increasingly dominates our hyper-mobile and hyper-technological society. The surrealist music video reminds me of Eleanor Rigby — “all the lonely people.” Throughout the song, the thread that binds together a seemingly aimless wandering of angst is the unchanging refrain, “I promise.”

As I listened to it throughout the week, I thought quite a bit about promises.

Promises anchor us in the storm, keep us from being set adrift, losing our inner compass and stability. Baptismal promises, marital promises, ordination promises, professional promises. Promises manifest and confirm your character, forge and focus your deepest commitments. My grandfather wrote me once, “Tommy, always be a man of your word. If you don’t have your word, you’ve nothing to offer. Being true to your word in the face of resistance is the highest act of courage. Without this greatness is impossible. Words kept channel swift and powerful waters into a deep river that cuts rock, broken words diffuse into a shallow and murky swamp that covers rock with mud.” The Scriptures are filled with promises offered, promises kept and promises broken. God is above all true to His promises, true to His Name, a God of His Word — “Faithful and True” (Rev. 19:11).

The word promise comes from the Latin pro- “before” and mittere “to release, let go; send, throw.” So, in a sense, it means to “throw yourself” into the future. A future uncertain, indefinite, unknown. All promises are future oriented, throw caution to the wind in a reckless act of hope. Hope in God alone makes possible absolute and unconditional promises, as the martyrs testify eloquently. “Love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev. 12:11).

Last October on our 21st wedding anniversary, Patti and I spent an evening on the balcony of our hotel room sipping Chianti and remembering many of the big events in our marriage and family life. Patti said, “Can you imagine if we knew all that the words “I promise to be…’ implied? Oh my gosh. All that’s happened since that day? I guess that’s why the promises include ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health all the days of my life.’ Catch all. So you really do know you’re in for a lot!” I said, “I guess that’s also why they say that the eighth sacrament is ignorance! If we knew up front all that the other seven sacraments commit us to, we’d probably run! When you’re Catholic, you can’t ever say ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ If it’s a sacrament, it’s the cross, and so you did.”

Then she sang a line from Covenant Hymn (which she also sang at our wedding):

Whatever you dream, I am with you, when stars call your name in the night. Though shadows and mist cloud the future, together we bear there a light. Like Abram and Sarah we stand, with only a promise in hand. But lead where you dream: I will follow. To dream with you is my delight.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, when St. Thomas More’s daughter Margaret was trying to convince him to dissemble and take the Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, he said to her: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” St. Thomas knew baptismal promises bound Him unconditionally to God’s Kingdom, and that these were the ground of every other promise. He said just before he was beheaded, “I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”

When our first child was born, an “old salt” friend who had three sons of his own told me to never make a promise to my children that I couldn’t keep. Small or great. And if you break a promise, he said, make amends and do penance for them to see you take them dead seriously. Penance proportionate to the gravity of the promise. He said, “They need to get from you that they can count on you. Everything else in your life can fall apart, you can lose your job or even, God forbid, your health. Things won’t always go your way. But if you promise them you will always do your best, trust God, love Patti in the worst conditions and put them first over yourself, and then do it, they will see everything is going to be okay. Your promises are your children’s safe zone. Die before you break them.”

[Verse 1]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise

[Verse 2]
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Verse 3]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Outro]
I won’t run away no more, I promise

Distracted by Trivia

iaddiction.com

“What Aldous Huxley [in Brave New World] teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a voyeuristic vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.” ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (c. 1985)

Last week my iPhone shattered. In an event that appeared to be a sign of providentially ironic divine humor, it happened on the first day of my vacation when I found myself cheating on a commitment I had made not to use my phone for anything other than calling and texting family, and then only in necessity. Literally, as I was sending pictures to someone not in my family (but, come on, it was a funny picture!) my phone fell out of my hands and the screen completely shattered and the screen displayed triple images. After a moment of frustration, I belly laughed for at least a minute. I have been without it since. Glorious.

So all this got me thinking throughout the week. Here’s what I scribbled in my journal. No lightning bolt insights, just my summary of a common conversation.

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Our culture, which I myself fully inhabit and struggle with, suffers from a deep and tragic addiction to technological superficiality, to being incessantly entertained and stimulated, constantly consuming and not communing with existence. Our attention is short, shallow and fragmented, and so our threshold of patience grows short. We have no more safe zones insulated from the world of endless noise and chatter; or in the words of William James, from the world of “the great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In such a culture things like prayer and inner silence erode, as well as the ability to sit and be with others. To listen closely or to suffer through the human necessity of feeling loneliness or boredom. All of which are part of prayer, part of love.

We stay in touch with everyone at the expense of the few who need and demand our touch the most. Precious time is devoured by trivialities. Watching the endless string of recommended videos on YouTube, we get sucked into a vortex. But we justify it. While on an iPhone we can swipe away or x-out things that fail to give us pleasure or attract our interest, but life is not that way. However, it too easily becomes that way. We check and use our phones compulsively, not freely. When we get a pause, a slack, a lull, a still moment in our day — or a dead silence at night — we feel the addict’s itch to reach for our phone. Dull the dull, anesthetize the pain and feed the screaming appetites we have conjured unwittingly. Since when did these things cross over from wants to needs?

We ceaselessly take pictures of everything to ‘capture the moment,’ to post for others, to get likes, but fail to encounter real life in real time without concern for others’ approval or interest. Reality inverts, as the virtual becomes real and the real becomes virtual. We live life away from home all the time, every conversation we have in person is intruded on by a third party. Life itself becomes tired and insipid, while life through the screen becomes our litmus of interest, our new heroine.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). We Christians must enact a Pentecostal revolt against this zombie culture, this addict’s world. We must become masters of our technologies and not its slaves. Claim back our power of attention, which is our power to love others with attentiveness. We must cultivate an asceticism that ensures our freedom, that constantly critiques our use of social media, iPhones, gaming, all entertainment, and places all of it in service to virtue, to the ability to be present to the present moment, present to the raw, real, uncontrollable, sometimes unpleasant, boring and tedious aspects of life right in front of us — by divine design. We must radically and regularly confess our techno-abuses in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to access its liberating graces. We must show the world what it means to “put out into the deep,” not live as surface-skimming Christian dilettantes. We must be free — slaves to nothing or no one. We must flee escapism. I’ll end with Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words about the spiritual life that apply so powerfully to this topic:

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action in every present moment that comes our way, welcome or unwelcome?

Stay Put

ferrazgroup.co

[Been sitting in my drafts. Yes, still unruly, but it somehow seems timely to launch on this Feast of the Visitation when Mary makes haste through the dangerous hill country of Judea to be of service to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, carrying in her womb the world-consecrating Christ]

I went to a restaurant several summers ago with my wife while we were traveling, and the restaurant owner, who is an eastern European immigrant, came to our table to ask how things were. We told her how much we liked the food and the atmosphere and especially the service. She said, “Good!” And my wife said, “It’s hard to find good service these days, you know?” The floodgates opened and she spoke her mind. I wrote my recollection of it later in my journal:

Yes, Brittany is one of my best. She’s very good and been here for seven years. But you know you’re right it isn’t easy to find good help anymore. I’ve been in this business for many years and can tell you that in the last ten years or so finding good employees gets harder and harder. Makes business harder to run. My experience is few younger people really want to work hard and to pay their dues first, you know what I mean? They’re unreliable, come in late, always want to take time off and don’t have a sense of responsibility, accountability. You know, a sense of commitment to this business. I try to give my employees a sense of ownership. But it’s a revolving door. I try to pay well and be fair and and reward hard work, you know? But if they won’t do the work and stick with it, what can I do? And it’s not like there’s a surplus of jobs.

They show up late day after day and so I have to fire them. They stay out late at night partying and then can’t get up. But the hardest part is so many of them don’t take criticism. They get very offended if you criticize their performance. Come on! So how can you get better? Everything offends them that doesn’t say, “oh you’re awesome,” you know? It’s crazy. Their moms and dads did them a bad deal, I’d say. My mom and dad raised me to be tough and take criticism and work hard and don’t expect anyone to do things for you. They were tough on me because they knew life is tough. Especially for a woman. My dad would say, success is not an accident. And in this economy you can’t survive if you’re half-hearted. But then again without dedicated employees I can’t survive as a business owner. It makes me worry for the future, you know? What will happen? Where will a change come from?

Coincidentally, a few weeks after that conversation I met a young man who came up to speak to me after a talk I gave to a Theology on Tap gathering on “the universal call to holiness.” We ended up staying for over an hour talking. He told me how much my talk spoke to him and to his situation. He then recounted for me a profound experience of Jesus he had at a retreat, after which he became very committed to his Catholic faith. I asked him what he did for a living and said he had worked for the last two and a half years at a local restaurant as a server while he finished his A.A. degree and was hoping to be promoted. I told him how much my wife and I liked that restaurant, but he immediately retorted, “Yeah, sure, the food is good but what happens behind the scenes? It’s bad news.” I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He went on to share some details:

Well, there’s all kinds of crap going on. For example, sexual stuff, like, all the time. The guys watch porn on their phones constantly in the back and then show it around. Even to the girls. And there’s all kinds of sexual relationships, hookups going on all the time. Groping. People constantly talking smack behind other people’s back. It’s just crazy. When I first started I was like, seriously? At a restaurant? You really have to be so strong to resist, though, because it’s in your face all the time. Huge peer pressure. They make it seriously awkward if you refuse the sexual offers.

[I asked him how the managers allow this] Well, the shift managers just turn a blind eye. They know it’s happening but they just want peace. But when the general manager comes everybody acts saintly. And then there’s the super foul language. They’re so polite to customers and then they walk back and their mouth is like a sewer. And they make lewd comments about customers. I mean, I’m not perfect but this is some sick shit. I had no idea a restaurant could be that dysfunctional. I just keep my head down, you know? I mean, I like the work, especially serving the customers. Actually, I would love to be a manager. I know what needs to be done and I could make it better. But right now I just want to get out of there to find a more godly place where I can live my faith radically. I was thinking maybe I could work for God, for the church like you do.

He asked me what I thought. I seized the opportunity. I said:

No! Don’t start at despair and flight. And let’s get this straight — you are working for God. I am working for the institutional church, which means God has called me to be your servant. My ministry is for your mission. I work for the church but you are the church at work. On the streets. Getting employed by the church isn’t any holier, just different. In your work, where you are now, is a whole field of opportunities for greatness. For being radical. You’ve got built into your work a thousand opportunities to exercise hard virtue and to evangelize. If you just surrounded yourself with the like-minded you’ll lose that. I know it’s easier said than done, but where you are now is really where holiness begins and ends for the vast majority of Christians. Out there in the field. Faith with work boots on. Sweaty work.

I told him that this is precisely what my talk was about, was what the church at Vatican II envisioned when it raised up for a new honoring the royal dignity of world-oriented baptismal priesthood. “That’s where Vatican II wanted the epicenter of the new evangelization to be: secular saints.” I added, “Remember what I said, that Baptism and Confirmation set in motion a vocation and a mission to run crazed and headlong out into the midst of the world’s ruins and engage in God’s rebuilding project. THAT is what Catholics mean when they use the word salvation.” He said, “I always thought salvation was of souls.” I said:

Yes, but God doesn’t only want to save your soul, but your body also. And with your body everything you do in the body, which connects you to the whole material world and everyone in it. Even the sewer-mouthed pervs and the nasty gropers. God put you with them for a purpose. Just by being a man of prayer in that restaurant. Just by your refusal to participate in the stuff they do, every day during your shift, makes a huge statement. And your being a normal guy, hard working, honest, and whatever else you bring — people will totally notice. Yeah, some will find it irritating, some won’t care because they’re too self-absorbed to notice. But somebody’s taking note and you never can know what effects God is using you for. You have the best pulpit you could ever get. The only one most of these folks will ever see. A quiet homily.

And remember, the world is only always conquered by Christ one field at a time, one life at a time. But once He gains a field, He’s got a base from which He can launch His revolution. But it takes time. Like a long, gentle and soaking rain.

He reiterated his enthusiasm over being able to assume a greater leadership role at the restaurant, and said that he had gained the respect of many of the employees just because he’s consistent. I continued:

Commitment to this mission from Jesus demands a rugged vision of the lay vocation to be salt, light and leaven in the world. To make the Kingdom of God present and effective. To detonate the J-bomb right where you’re at in the field of battle. Not in the sanctuary but in the field. We need to have a church sanctuary that calls us back in from the battle, to re-arm us, feed us, tend our wounds, help us re-strategize, energize us with pep talks. And where we offer all of the spoils of victory to God. But the laity are commanded at the end of Mass — remember I said that the “Go!” at the end of Mass is an imperative, command verb? — to leave the protected sanctuary and exit into the exposed front lines.

Your restaurant is the perfect arena where your own secular genius can bring about, in ways great and small, a new culture. The same way the Master did, by courageously facing the world with love that’s sometimes stripped naked, beaten, bloodied, spat on, laughed at, rejected, crucified between criminals. And remember Jesus’ initial success stats: only two among all those who surrounded Him on the day of His Passion were converted — the Good Thief and the Centurion. And both were bad dudes before they met Jesus.

Christ-culture, which flows from a splintered Cross and an empty tomb, is not simply about being religious. It includes commitment to hard labor, being a man of your word, being just, fair, chaste, courageous, service-minded, sober, dedicated to excellence in your profession. It includes peace, joy, self-control, generosity. It means being a Christian gentleman. A lost art. All that eloquently proclaims the Gospel of Work and creates a culture that gives Jesus breathing room.

In the early years of Christianity, apologists, who are theologians who defended the faith, would write their defense of Christians to the pagan rulers and would say things like: “Look, Christianity brings all kinds of perks to the Empire. In Christians you have exemplary citizens who live lives of quiet and heroic virtue, who pray for the emperor, who don’t lie or steal or cheat or have sex outside of marriage, who don’t abort their babies, who care for the poor and sick and elderly, who cultivate peace. And all of this is a testimony to the truth of their religion.” Just think if your restaurant was staffed entirely by employees like that — it would make for a more successful business!

That’s the new Kulturkampf the church needs to unleash in society at the end of every Mass: “Go! Be sent! Be cultural revolutionaries, all of you!” The church calls this mission “consecrating the world to God.” To consecrate means to re-claim something for God’s purposes, to make the world the way God wants it to be. Consecrating finds its most perfect expression in the Holy Eucharist. You know, when the bread and wine are consecrated they belong to Jesus entirely, absolutely. But even more specific, in the Eucharistic consecration the Son of God makes Himself claims the bread and wine for His own in a very specific mode: they are His at the moment He hands over His Body to be broken by us and as He sheds His Blood for us. In other words, consecration is joining Jesus as He labors to love and redeem a corrupt, depraved, vicious, ungrateful and perverse rabble, making of that rabble a holy communion.

So let me just say that before you settle on leaving, be sure you first embrace this truth of your faith. Make sense? Look, God has entrusted you with the work of tending a small plot of His Vineyard on 2254 State Street, for 40 hours each week. He’s hoping you can make it bear some good fruit for Him. It’s a vineyard, which means tilling hard soil, clearing stones, digging furrows, planting seeds, praying for rain, hedging, training, pruning, fertilizing. So it’s brutally hard work in the blistering sun. But this is your glory as a layman, the moment of your greatness, the Colosseum of your martyrdom, the way in which Christ continues His conquest of the world from the Cross. Man, you get to bring into that godless space God. Is that amazing? And if we take the Bible seriously, right, it seems God seriously enjoys getting invitations to dine in a den of sin and raise holy hell. [laughs]

All that said, you will absolutely need to find a community of faith for support and encouragement in your parish, or wherever, as a base for your mission. You said have a passion to move up to management, right? And, although it will never be easy or perfect, just think of the influence you could have there. I suspect there’s a calling in that desire. As they say, “If not now, when? If not you, who? If not there, where?” The church needs passionately faith-filled people like you to stay in the world and not just drain out into ministry. I love ministry, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, not for most. The world doesn’t need a brain drain of Christ’s mind. First bloom where you’re planted, and then you can discern God’s will.

My advice in sum? Pray in place and stay put. Just see what happens, what fruits come.

He seemed very enthusiastic and encouraged as we finished our conversation and he gave me his email address and said he wanted to meet again. We did. I gave him the name of a priest I knew would support him and asked him, as is my custom, if he minded my sharing the outlines of his story to benefit others. He said that was fine as long as I kept it anonymous. I wrote him an email the next day and ended with a quote from St. John Paul II:

In particular, two temptations can be cited which [the laity] have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.

I also included the Twenty One Pilots song, Not Today, which colorfully captures the struggle we have with God (“You”) when we sense He is calling us out of our comfort zone and asking us to stop hiding from our mission to transform the world. I’m glad TØP said yes to that mission!

Every Catholic family, and every Catholic institution responsible for forming young men and women should have this burning at the core of its mission: to cultivate faithful and engaged citizens capable of becoming passionate Christophers in the world, carrying Christ into culture, politics, business, economics, science, sales, you name it. Once planted there in the public square, Christ, like King Midas, can refine the world’s alloy into the purest of gold by His incarnate touch. And we are His incarnate touch.

That is where change will come from.