Fr. Humanity

Fr. John

Recently, a priest who served on the formation faculty at Notre Dame Seminary died of complications arising from a rather routine surgery. His name was Father John Arnone. He was only 49 years old when he died and had served as a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 17 years. He had anticipated the possibility of his death by putting his affairs in order before his surgery, preparing all the details for his funeral and penning a profoundly beautiful farewell to all whom he loved and served — including a plea that those he had offended in life kindly forgive him.

He was a jolly and kind man, very personable and relate-able. It seemed to me that almost everyone in the area knew him, even the lady who cuts my hair at Super Cuts. When she found out he had been transferred to the Seminary from her parish, she said (with her fantastically thick NOLA accent): “Oh, dawlin, let me tell you about Father John. He’s a trip. What a good man. You know, when my cousin was sick in the hospital, he…”

He was, from all accounts, an icon of hospitality who made everyone feel at home. I heard quite a number of stories from people who said that he had been instrumental in their return to the practice of the faith and had provided in their lives, at a crucial time, the healing and reconciling presence of the church. From my own limited experience with him, but more with the litany of testimonies I listened to, it was clear that Fr. John served as a sign of the humanity of the church and of the humanity of a God who is not only above us and beyond us, but for us and with us. Fr. John’s humanity was not merely an instrument of grace, like a cipher, but a bearer of grace, like Mary, revealing in his own life that holiness makes us not less but more genuinely human. Yes, people want God from their priests, but they want “God with skin on,” as Venerable Fulton Sheen loved to say.

After attending the Vespers wake service at the Seminary, which was deeply moving, I stood outside across the street from the Seminary and watched the procession of humanity stream into the church. On and on and on. I thought of how many lives he had touched as a spiritual father, brother and friend to so many people. Baptisms, weddings, confessions, Masses, anointings, funerals, blessings, homilies, kind words, smiles, advice, late night visits to the hospital. I then thought of the tremendous power of every human life to impact others’ lives, for good or for ill, and how that legacy will await us in the next life. Glory to you, O God of justice and mercy!

I imagined, as I prayed for him, all those to whom he had brought good in this life were waiting to greet him in Paradise, in a similar procession, filled with God-joined gratitude. Whatever sins he had committed in life, it seemed to me, would be covered amply in death by the endless echoes of love resounding from all those people (1 Pet. 4:8!) whose voices would at once be the very voice of Christ (Matt. 25:31-46!).

But it was just before the funeral began, as I sat in the only available space — the cry room! — that I would receive what I considered to be the most remarkable compliment about Fr. John’s ministry. A gentleman with a long white beard, who appeared to be in his late 70’s, asked me if I knew Fr. John personally. I explained to him our work together at the Seminary and my admiration for him. The man then said to me:

I knew him as well. Though not well. But enough to know the man. I’m a good read of people, good at a quick size-up. You see, I’m an old crotchety fellow, not too pleasant to be around. But Fr. John, well, he was genuine. The real deal, you know? And one of the only people I’ve ever known in life who listened to me. Not just heard me, but listened. You know, so well that his advice back to me struck me hard. And I’m a better man for it, though I don’t think he ever knew that. Does now. It’s just amazing what can happen when you take the time to listen to someone, you know? You be sure to tell the seminarians that. And tell them to look out for old geezers like me and don’t write us off. We may seem tough on the outside, but we need religion just like everyone else. But we’ll be the last to admit it. But when he sat with me those times he did during some rough times — and let me tell you Fr. John always made time for you — it was as if God Himself was listening. And I’m here today to thank God for him.

Thank God for him. As Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” — where charity and love prevail, that is.

“Without Sunday, we cannot…”

[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:

One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.

To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.

It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.

So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.

And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.

If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.

And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!

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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:

It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.

I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.

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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:

When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.

When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.

What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.

That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!

I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]

Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.

Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift:

Cough Syrup and Jesus

Another off-beat, idiosyncratic Neal creation. First, have you ever read this St. Paul “what if” musing? It’s just remarkable!

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead! — 1 Cor. 15:13-20

A dark world aches for a splash of the sun. — Young the Giant

Today I would like to share a brief reflection on a song called Cough Syrup by the group, Young the Giant. For whatever reason, ever since Maria and Ashley introduced me to that song last year (their cover), I have never tired of listening to it, finding again and again new inspirations in its tune, lyrics and music video. Why? In part, I think this is because when Patti and I got away to Biloxi for our 21st wedding anniversary last October, this song was playing on my Playlist as we sat out on the balcony of our condo watching the sunrise dapple the Gulf waters. At that moment it was like time collapsed, all my cares fled and I was surrounded by things that bring me intense joy: my wife, nature and music. Whenever I hear it play, without exception, I am thrust back to the transcendent power of that moment.

An aside: A priest I know emailed me the other day and said he so often finds in “non-religious” music a much more profound and honest exploration of the great existential questions of humanity than what he finds in most pop Christian music. I would concur entirely, and could list 100 examples. Christian faith is incarnate and paschal, taking its point of departure in divine revelation’s full immersion in the human condition.

Cough Syrup is a symbolic fest, though I would not say I believe Young the Giant intends “faith” explicitly. But I am Catholic, so any human search for meaning is already friendly to the light of faith. I won’t attempt a serious commentary on Cough Syrup, nor claim I really understand what the composers intended. I’ll just toss out a few comments and then share the music video/lyrics for you to reflect on. If you feel so moved!

During this Easter season, I am seeing so many resonances of death and resurrection all around me.

Cough Syrup seems to be about the quest for meaning and happiness in life. Universal. It speaks to struggles with depression, despair and a sense of purposelessness. The “fishes” and “zombies,” having lost all meaning and purpose, tempt the singer to return to their shadow-lands. The song and music video are chock full of rich symbols. “Cough syrup,” I think, symbolizes temporary fixes, like psychotropic medications (Xanax, Zoloft) that dull the inner pain. Though these medications serve a great purpose and can allow you to catch your breath, if your crisis is rooted in the collapse of a sense of substantive meaning in life meds will never be able to free you. Those drowning in the gray hues of depression long to spring out into the colorful, hopeful, playful and restorative light of the sun, that most ancient symbol of the rising Christ.

In both song and music video, I see with the eyes of faith a baptismal font in which we both die and rise; a dark tomb holding the dead Christ; a Paschal candle; the rising sun, disciples running to the empty tomb; the immobilizing chains of sin; mind-bending metanoia; a buried treasure in a field; the surrender of faith; redemption as restoration; a foray into God’s prism beauty that inspires Christian liturgical play and sung celebration (Rev. 4:3); knowing the shortness of life (Psalm 39:4).

Oh! The power of art to bring hope, meaning and beauty to a hopeless, meaningless and ugly life.

Enjoy, if you wish:

Life’s too short to even care at all oh
I’m losing my mind losing my mind losing control
These fishes in the sea they’re staring at me oh oh oh oh oh oh
A wet world aches for a beat of a drum, oh

If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down, come down

Life’s too short to even care at all oh
I’m coming up now coming up now out of the blue oh
These zombies in the park they’re looking for my heart oh oh oh oh
A dark world aches for a splash of the sun oh oh

If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now

And so I run to the things they said could restore me
Restore life the way it should be
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down

Life’s too short to even care at all oh
I’m losing my mind losing my mind losing control

If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now

And so I run back to the things they said could restore me
Restore life the way it should be
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down

One more spoon of cough syrup now whoa
One more spoon of cough syrup now whoa

Catholic Labor Day

It is your duty, dear priests, to make the church’s wish come true … That workers’ figure and situation be reconsidered, to allow them to be more human and to recover their true greatness as collaborators with God’s creative work … So that the gap between church and factory begins to fill, and that the fumes of incense mix with those of industries in rising up to heaven. — St. John Paul II

Today’s Feast of St Joseph the Worker was instituted in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a Catholic liturgical response to the Communist version of the May Day celebration.

Today is the day that Catholic workers all over the world should proudly celebrate the gift of labor. They must witness to their co-workers, by word and example, that, no matter how arduous or tedious or boring the task at hand, and no matter the inefficiency or incompetence or irritation of their colleagues, work is for them is always an opportunity to join Jesus’ work of Redemption. Jesus the Worker carried out His greatest act while hanging helpless on the cursed Tree. Yet because of His internal disposition of obedience to the Father and faithful love for the wreckage of humanity around Him (all working hard to destroy Him), He transformed every terribly un-ideal, non-conducive labor condition into a supreme opportunity for re-creating the whole of creation.

Work allows Christians to demonstrate concretely the hard virtue of charity and the costliness of grace by their relentless commitment to excellence amid mediocrity, patience amid failure, kindness amid asinine behavior, and a willingness to forgive amid injustices — even as they labor for justice. In other words, Christians reveal to others the way God Himself deals with us as His co-workers — and what a sorry lot He has to work with! Yet He loves His inept, uncooperative co-workers tirelessly, never ceasing to re-engage them again and again and again in His work … When He could be FAR more efficient if He just did it all alone. But God sees that the ultimate goal of labor is not efficiency but love that builds a communion out of a rabble.

I remember years ago when I was working as a maintenance man, my St. Joseph-esque friend and boss, Michael Pearson, and I were working together on some construction project. Michael epitomizes the Catholic theology of work that I have briefly described here. He taught me how to do (among other things) electrical, plumbing, carpentry and even car repair work. Anyway, while we were working on something together one day, he was teaching me how to locate studs behind drywall before affixing things to the wall. I said to him something like, “This would probably go a lot faster if you just did this yourself.” He replied, “Tom, that’s not the point. The point is to work together, like St. Joseph did with Jesus. So much more enjoyable, don’t you think?” I quietly teared up. That vision made me 1000 times more motivated to work. It reminded of that lovely line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince:

When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.

Without such a Christian witness in the vast world of labor, who will ever believe the “word of the Cross” we say we believe is the model for all laboring in a fallen world? How we labor each day is really where greatness shines brightest in the disciples of Jesus. Matthew 7:21:

Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

We may not be able to present people with persuasive apologetics or brilliant theological reasoning, but we can — and must — present them with deeds, words-made-flesh that give evidence to the hope that is within us. I met a man in RCIA this year who was becoming Catholic at the age of 82. He said he watched his wife live her faith every day for over 50 years and finally was convinced. He said, “I’m a slow learner, and stubborn, but she was patient with me. She never pushed me once. Just a quiet witness. Like a long, gentle rain.”

50 years. And I complain when someone does not respond after 5 years — or 5 minutes! — to offerings of faith. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

I’ll end with a pic of a shirt my students gave me on the last day of our Theology of the Laity class. They are awesome! And then with the Chapman song I post here about every six months. Happy Catholic Labor Day!

Daft Punk Sabbath

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Jews gave the world a day of rest. No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. Those who live without such a septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are considered slaves in the biblical conception. — Thomas Cahill

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in harmony. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. ― Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Sabbath! Shabbat! The day of ceasing from work, the day of rest, the day of thanksgiving, the day of celebration when Queen Sabbath, and her Lord, come to set free those men and women whom work, under the dominion of sin, ever-threatens to enslave.

When Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” — He was declaring Himself to be the Sabbath, the eternal rest of God-made-man in whom God’s rest and man’s rest coincide. Hebrews 4:1-13 makes this point. The eternal Word is the delighted Sabbath gaze of the Father who, on the 7th day, ceased creating to look back on the “very good” creation He had called into existence out of nothing. And He invites us, made in His image, to join Him on the 7th day in His delighted contemplative gaze on the beauty of both creation and Creator.

In His resurrection, Jesus, having completed all of His redeeming work, entered the 8th day of creation — the day of eternity — to gaze with the Father and the Holy Spirit on the goodness and beauty of the new creation. In Him all creation finds its final rest-oration, and every Sunday is a sacrament of that rest as we cease from our labors and allow God to gaze on us with delight. And in the Holy Mass He invites us, reborn as His sons and daughters, to join Him on the 8th day in His delighted contemplative gaze on the beauty of both re-creation and Redeemer.

Work and rest, labor and leisure, doing and be-ing, action and contemplation, planting and celebrating, harvesting and feasting, giving and receiving, usefulness and uselessness, means and ends, composing and playing. These furious opposites shape a fully human life and give birth to creativity. Leisure, which is a posture of grateful receptivity toward existence as a gift, is not a luxury but a necessity for authentic human living. Leisure and labor are not opposites or competitors, but dance partners. Leisure requires labor, and labor requires leisure. Without leisure there is no “space” made in which we can return to God as a sacrifice all that we have made of what we received. Without leisure we forget to give thanks, we fail to celebrate and the fruit of joy dies on the vine. Without labor we cannot rightly receive the gifts we are given, which requires that we multiply them in service to the good of all to the glory of God. With no labor, there is no sacrificial offering to return God’s fruit-bearing gifts with thanksgiving. God created six days to gather the material for the Sacrifice, and one day to pour it out before Him in joyful celebration.

Oh the purposelessness of Sabbath celebration, of making beauty, of splashing life with infinitely varied colors! The Sabbath commands we have tea with our grandmother, swing quietly beneath the oak with a friend, smell flowers, dance, make love to our spouse, dress up for Mass, set the table for a feast with exquisite care, make music, laugh, play, bathe the feet of Jesus with our tears and dry them with our hair. O sheer, glorious, reckless, blessed waste done for the sake of love without measure.

I worked in an Orthodox Jewish nursing home in Connecticut in the 1980’s and I will never forget the weekly experience of welcoming the Sabbath on Friday evening. With the tables decorated beautifully and adorned with traditional foods and wine, the Rabbi would welcome Lady Sabbath into the Home with song and dance and prayers. “Shabbat shalom…”  All in Hebrew. Many of the residents knew the words, the songs and would sing. While during the week they looked sad from loneliness, on this evening every week all would come alive. It was an emotional thing to watch. For that short time they felt valued, worthy, loved, essential, important, joyful. The world took on a beauty and meaning that it lost during the days of efficiency and procedures, busyness and rushed pragmatism. Eating, drinking, dancing, singing, speaking a sacred language, drawing on memories that went back to childhood; to Sinai; to the dawn of creation. Lady Sabbath had come and set them free from a world that declares the unproductive unworthy, dead weight. A foretaste of the next world, where all means-to-ends collapse into a single End and utility is swallowed up in the final work of all creation: ceaseless celebration of unending love.

Not long ago, I had worked for 14 days in a row. It was a Sunday and I was writing a talk I had to give out of town that week. My son, who wanted to go for a run with me, came over and said, “Dad, when will you be done?” I said, “Not much longer.” He said, “That’s what you said last time.” I got a bit short and said, “I just have to focus, please.” He said, “What are you writing about?” I said, “The Paschal Mystery for an adult education thing.” He said, “Don’t you think the Paschal Mystery would want you to spend time with your family on a Sunday?”

The Church exists in the world to bring to the world the culture of Sabbath. The Church is meant to be for all people a “house of prayer,” a place to bring labors and heavy burdens and rest them on the Altar for total consecration. Like the prodigal son who returned to the father weary, burdened, exhausted and chained by his labors and his sins, we must make Sabbath time to return to God with the sacrifice of our whole life-offering — repented sins and virtuous labors — so He can receive all of it, with us, into His outrageously wasteful (see the older son in Luke 15:25-32) and joyful celebration.

As I like to use off-beat songs to punctuate my points, I will end with the song Daft Punk by one of my favorite contemporary groups, the crazy-talented a capella Pentatonix. They are nuts! The lyrics of this cover-mashup of various Daft Punk songs alternate (in my mind!) between labor and Sabbath celebration. My favorite part of the song is the beginning riff of technologic buzz words that exhaust me just thinking of! Mostly because so much of my work life is dominated by those words. Feel the tension between the freedom of celebration and the work that is “never over.” I won’t attempt any commentary beyond that. If you so desire, watch the wildly colorful and fun music video and follow the lyrics I posted below.

Buy it, use it, break it, fix it,
Trash it, change it, mail, upgrade it,
Charge it, point it, zoom it, press it,
Snap it, work it, quick, erase it,
Write it, cut it, paste it, save it,
Load it, check it, quick, rewrite it,
Plug it, play it, burn it, rip it,
Drag and drop it, zip, unzip it,
Lock it, fill it, call it, find it,
View it, code it, jam, unlock it,
Surf it, scroll it, pause it, click it,
Cross it, crack it, switch, update it,
Name it, rate it, tune it, print it,
Scan it, send it, fax, rename it,
Touch it, bring it, pay it, watch it.
Technologic.

One more time
Ah ah ah ah ah
Ah ah ah ah
One more time
Ah ah ah ah ah
Ah ah ah ah

We’re like the legend of the Phoenix
Our ends with beginnings
What keep the planets spinning
The force of love beginning
We’ve come too far,
To give up who we are
So let’s raise the bar
And our cups to the stars
We’re up all night till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re all up till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re up all night, all night to get,
Up all night to get, get, get lucky
Last night, I had this dream about you
In this dream, I’m dancing right beside you
There’s nothing wrong with just a little bit of fun
We were dancing all night long
Oh, I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
I hope this dream comes true
One more time
We’re gonna celebrate
Oh yeah, all right
Don’t stop the dancing
One more time
We’re gonna celebrate

Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever hour after
Our work is never over
Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever hour after
Our work is never over
I’mma work it harder, make it bett-
Do it faster, makes us
More than ever hou-hour after
Ou-our work is never over
Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever hour after
Our work is never over

Television, rules the nation, oh yeah
Television, rules the nation

Music’s got me feeling so free
Celebrate and dance so free
One more time
Music’s got me feeling so free
We’re gonna celebrate
Celebrate and dance so free (celebrate)
Tonight (We’ve)
Hey, just feelin’ (Come to far)
Music’s got me feeling the need (To give up who we are)
One more time
Music’s got me feeling so free (So let’s)
We’re gonna celebrate (Raise the bar)
Celebrate and dance (And our cups)
To the stars
We’re up all night till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky
We’re up all night till the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up for
One more time
We’re up all night till the sun
Celebration
Feelings so free
One more time
We’re up all night till the sun
Celebration
Music’s got me feeling so

Our work is never over

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (beneath Golgotha)

The Cross at Ground Zero. carbonated.tv

[In absence of more time to write, I will share my recent journal entry here meditating on the Triduum. It was a one sitting stream of thought. I pray one insight feeds your prayer these holy days. This will be my last post till after Easter, so all good wishes for your celebrations to be filled with joy and God’s blessings.]

As I have been meditating on this impending Triduum, a host of insights have been boiling in my heart. I will write them here with a logic and order totally disrupted by the unsettled-ness of this paschal mystery. Worse in its mess because I am part of that mystery. Gulp.

In the 7-day liturgical rhythm of the first creation story in Genesis, Friday (day 6) is the day Man was created, male-female, in the divine image; Saturday (day 7) is the day of both divine and human Sabbath rest; Sunday (day 1) is the very dawn of creation when God first spoke light into being.

Good Friday. Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday.

The Pasch of Christ weaves its seamless disruption so magnificently into the textures of creation’s pattern, you almost don’t notice when the bread and wine become Him. Clearly, divine providence loves patterns that evince surprising beauty. God loves making us gawk.

The Last Supper takes place, by the Jewish counting of a new day beginning at sunset, on the same day as the crucifixion. “Holy Thursday” is a deceptive way of naming the Last Supper. The Eucharist and the cross are in one day, are one event.

The Eucharist is a verb, a sacrificing: Body broken for you, Blood spilled for you.

The Eucharist is a verb, a command: Take, eat; Take, drink. Terrifying to eat and drink verbs. Especially ones suffused with crazed love. Active, plying. I much prefer nouns. Passive, pliable.

The Eucharist is a verb, a demand: As I have done, so you must do. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.

The Eucharist is God-Man grain, grapes, surrendered to death, to crushing, to pressing, to fire, to fermenting, to ingestion. All in order to give life, to give thanks, to reveal the most secret essence of God. God is food, drink.

The crucified and risen Flesh and Blood of the God-Man is His supreme sacrificial self-gift for His bride, for humanity. Given so she might become “church,” ekklesia, which means “called out from where you are.” Out of my comfort zone, that is, to where He is. Ekklesia is the Woman born of His open side, a New Eve washed and clothed, invited, called and gathered into His home, His life, His love, His faithfulness, His joy, His recreating work.

The Eucharistic sacrificial banquet feeds us, the image-bearers God created to make certain creation was lovingly cultivated into a beautiful, fragrant, fruit-filled, life-giving Garden of offering.

The Eucharist effects, seals, perfects, elevates, transforms, transfigures, glorifies, divinizes Man and Woman. Eucharistic Communion is the true two-in-one-flesh, the extreme source and paradigm of all human community, the nuptial union on which a new humanity is built.

The Word once spoken into clay, in the beginning, comes now, in time, to speak words of tender love to His image. Yet His image silences Him, takes His Breath away. The “word of the cross” is His silence, the asphyxiation of the God who breathed life into Man in the beginning. Silent, breathless love. “He opened not His mouth.” “He breathed His last.” “He handed over the Spirit.”

Listen to His silence, eloquent beyond all words. In His silence He listens attentively to our screaming hatred, rejection, cursing, jeering, mocking, spitting, abuse, blasphemy, ridicule, injustice, lies, torture, death. His silence speaks long, long-suffering mercy. Omnipotence, un-condemning from the cross, unsaying sin, undoing death, unmasking violence: “I don’t want to hurt you,” He says in effect. And after He rises, after being felled by us He says with indescribable kindness, “Shalom.” “Do you love me?” “Feed.”

“It is finished,” before He finally obeys death. Creation is finished, completed, redeemed, re-created now that the labor of love-to-the-end has ended its exodus and all things have been delivered. God can rest in the completion of love’s toil.

The Burial of Christ, the Sabbath of the slain God-Man, a rest restless with the urgency of love (John 5:17); of a Father gazing in tender mercy on the corpse of His Son, contemplating the goodness and beauty of Their love’s self-emptying work. The Word-made-flesh has restored creation to its original beauty and goodness (kalon) by an act of obedient love. Creation was created by and for love. As Christ rested in Hell, slept in that loveless space, preached hope wordlessly, Hell shook with unrest and terror.

And on the first day of the week, before dawn, the Word, dreaming of us, awoke from sleep and at once commanded Hell still, Death slain, Sin pardoned, the Grave powerless. The Word rose from death’s darkness and said, “Let there be light.” And He was Light without evening, forever risen in an unending Day, artisan of a New Creation, Gardener of an immortal Garden through which the Living Waters flow.

All this because in His compassion He came down for us, for our salvation. For me, the guilty, fallen, beaten and bleeding bystander, He stooped low to tend my wounds and lift me up.

I re-read Fr. Aidan Nichols’ reflection on the paschal mystery again this week for the umpteenth time. This paragraph always blows me away:

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act, i.e. a deliberate act of adoration of the Father … Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.

It means so many things to me! But here is what springs to mind.

The “purely secular conditions” of human existence — what is good and what is riddled with chaos and evil — are caught up into the cross-shaped Liturgy that, every day since the Resurrection, fills the world. Haunts the world.

Especially through the laity, whose baptismal priesthood renders them liturgical beings, allowing them to carry with them, everywhere, the “hidden fruitfulness” of  the Liturgy. As they live, love, work, pray, eat, drink, forgive, play, sacrifice, repent, suffer, sleep or weep, the earth-quaking power of Christ-unleashed hiddenly floods out of them into every nook and cranny of secular life. They roam out about everywhere, celebrating amid the truth, goodness and beauty of the world; as well as amid the “betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference of the men of power” — all the while gathering innumerable fragments of redeemed existence and bringing them, compressed into bread and wine, up to the Holy Sacrifice.

The faithful refuse to abandon anyone, anywhere — even the hangman or the gulag — by leaving them bereft of Christ’s saving power. Pentecost ensured Hell no longer has anywhere to hide, no world without a soul.

“We may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body” (From a letter to Diognetus, 140 A.D.).

The redeemed animate the world with divine life and love, humbly and mostly unnoticed, like God Himself.

Ours is a Paschal Liturgy, in which purity appears wrapped in filth; love in hate; gentleness in violence; life in death. Fr. Kavanagh:

The Book of Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear. Suburbia prefers its meat wrapped in plastic, all signs of violence removed so as to reduce the necessity of entering into the dark and murderous transaction with reality which one creature giving up its life for another entails.

Daring to liturgize, we join the obedient love of the “total Christ” — Christ and Christians — who bears on His back the sins of the “whole world” (1 Jn 2:2) and everything is redeemed (Titus 2:11). Christians have this noblesse oblige, this liturgical burden to offer their own Christ-knit lives to the Father in the Spirit for the whole of humanity and creation. Interceding forever for all, lifting them up with and to Him (Heb. 7:25); offering up their bodies as living sacrifices “on behalf of all and for all,” with martyrdom being liturgy’s apogee.

Egypt, Copts, Passion Sunday. Alongside them, I am unworthy to be called Christian. May I become worthy.

The Chaplet of Divine Mercy magnificently captures the liturgical work of the baptized as a Eucharistic co-offering for the whole world. And it should be prayed not only in churches or shrines, but everywhere we find ourselves. Eternal Father, I offer you…

Someone just sent me this clip they recorded during the celebration of Holy Mass on a balcony in the French Quarter. The recording catches a most beautiful part of the Mass, the “liturgy of the laity” — the Offertory. It seemed divinely timed that during the Offertory a huge second line party passed right under the balcony on the street below. It was a wedding. How fitting. No need to be super-spiritual here in the sense of being swept off into some otherworldly Heaven. Rather, Heaven swept down to Earth. Or, better, Heaven wedded to Earth, and man was reconciled to God.

As at Golgotha, this wedding welcomed near unlikely guests joyful, smelly, drunken, laughing, staggering revelers. In those streets, some strange and unsortable mix of saints and sinners. I imagine the shysters, tourists, prostitutes, johns, tax collectors extorting, gamblers squandering their mammon, addicts looking to buy, dealers looking to sell. Unaware their redemption was near at hand. Encircling them. Above them. Beside them. Beneath them. For them.

Might they only see, hear, understand and say, “Remember us, Lord, when you come into your Kingdom.”

I dream of an outbound Church, not a self-referential one, a Church that does not pass by far from man’s wounds, a merciful Church that proclaims the heart of the revelation of God as Love, which is Mercy. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Pope Francis)

Thank you, Father Celebrant, clothed in Penitent’s Purple, for turning your face toward them, and so sweeping them — us, me — up into the at-one-ing Offering.

It seems fitting to end here with an excerpt from Hymn of the Universe by Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, followed by a contemporary musical setting of the 6th century liturgical hymn to the Cross, Vexilla regis proderunt:

I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous rhythms trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this mystery that I thus desire all the fibers of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Tree of life and glory, Tree that heals and saves;
Tree that tells the ancient story:
dying, rising from the grave.

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He, by whom our flesh was made,
In that same flesh, our ransom paid.

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life’s torrent rushing from His side,
To wash us in that precious flood,
Where flowed the water and the blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old,
That He, the nation’s King should be,
And reign in triumph from the Tree.

O Tree of beauty, Tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear:
Gone is your shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of Glory now.

Divine ecology, writing and seed-casting

Sunset during the Willwoods Gala cocktail hour — “Tom, look, you need to get a picture of that and write a Blog on it!” I love challenges.

[Another busy week this week so probably no posts till the Triduum.]

I have no idea where this entry will go. Enjoy the ride…

Saturday night, my wife and I were invited to attend the Willwoods Sixteenth Annual Gala. Willwoods is a NOLA Catholic ministry that serves, among other things, the work of strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.

Patti and I love events like this because it’s kind of a “who’s who” in the world of NOLA Catholic culture on-the-move, with laity and clergy who invest their energy and love and faith into a unique aspect of Catholic life. Aided by an open bar, we had lots of lively conversations with a number of people, some of whom we had never met, but now are connected with — which is our favorite part. As I sat early Sunday morning reflecting on that night and the conversations we had had with quite a number of people, I began to think of the way many those people have reshaped me, my worldview, my marriage and my family’s life.

How marvelous is the interconnectedness of humanity! How astounding it is that we, as persons made for each other, are wholly defined by our relationships — for better or for ill. Many of the people I knew at the Gala I would consider people who strive for holiness, who have labored strenuously to permit God’s grace to shape their lives and, through them, influence the lives of those they interact with every day.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a priest I know, whom I quoted in yesterday’s post. He’s a remarkable man who has an unusual depth of compassion. By that I mean that he possesses a sustained and genuine interest in entering into others’ worlds and allowing them to enter into his. Not to simply accomplish some useful goal, or as a superficial formality, but in order to allow a meaningful human relationship to emerge. It is only, he believes, within such authentic human encounters that Christ can truly enter and reveal His life-enriching glory. It is a marvel to behold the fruits of his approach in others’ lives, mine included. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear said of him is: “He is so caring.” 

Such an approach to life and ministry takes discipline, intentionality and repeated acts of patient love. It comes with a high price tag. You might say his approach lacks a certain product-oriented “efficiency” which demands many — or even most — relationships be functional and goal-oriented. But from what I have seen and heard, the resulting quality-over-quantity “product” he produces bears the sweetest and most enduring of fruits on which alone — he would argue — genuine Christian community can be built.

It certainly was Jesus’ methodology.

As we sat together eating our meatless salads on a Lenten Friday, he asked me to describe the process that goes into my writing posts for this blog. “Where do the insights come from?” Here is roughly what I said:

The vast majority of posts begin with something I read, a conversation I have, a sunset I watch, a billboard I see, an insight that appears while I pray in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Something about this or that experience I have in a particular moment sparks something in me, like a flash of light, which then somehow gets caught up, in my mind, into the matrix of Christ — with it casting light on Him or Him casting light on it.

Then I will feel compelled to jot down the essence of whatever insight I’ve had on a receipt in my wallet, or speak a voice-to-text sent to my email address, or ask my wife if she wouldn’t mind pausing our evening conversation for three minutes while I type an explosive idea I just had into my blog drafts. Bless her heart, she’s so patient with her manic husband.

I have hundreds of drafts sitting in my wordpress account, waiting for me to have time on my hands and a Muse stirring in my imagination.

The amazing thing about writing, for me, is that when these insights detonate inside and I write them, they come alive inside of me. Like, really alive. The whole of my perspective is altered, shifted, expanded, troubled, deepened, stretched, inhabited by something new, something living, something vital that, once released into my thought-world, continues to work on everything I see and do and hear and touch and taste and reflect on and love and pray.

It’s like the ideas I get are living, not simply dead facts or bits of data added to a mental fact sheet. They trouble the waters of my mind until everything else adjusts to their presence. Which is why I love the song, “Wade in the Water,” which captures the “feel” of what goes on inside me as I theologically reflect on some wierd thing that caught me by surprise.

But I’ve noticed that it’s really only when I take these new insights and write them in my blog, or weave them into a talk or lecture I will be giving, that they come alive and begin to reshape the way I see and experience everything. They can’t just sit there, or they vanish. It’s only when I *intend* to give them away that they seem to have the power to re-define the way I see everything. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is information added to my worldview, while faith is information, set in motion by love, that reshapes and defines my whole worldview; becomes bit by bit the way I see everything — others, yourself, the world, God. “I believe” means “I see.”

But it’s really when I take the new knowledge into my prayer-time that, like activated charcoal, purfies and enriches and affects everything else, in a strange way, resetting the the whole mess of my inner life.

That’s really quite odd sounding, isn’t it? It sounds odd as I never articulate this. Thank you for asking the question and listening so carefully.

After I finished sharing this, he shared with me a metaphor that floored me. In brief, it went something like this (I will do grave injustice to it here trying to sum it as his phrasing was so succinct and brilliant):

The image that comes to mind as you speak is of an ecosystem, with your intellectual thought being almost like an ecology of the mind. An inner culture. Ecosystems have a certain delicate balance in which each organism adapts to its native environment and learns to cohabit with other organisms in a vital interdependence and network of life which allows all to thrive in an organic web. But when a new organism is introduced, everything gets troubled, disrupted, and needs to realign and re-adapt to the demands of the newcomer introduced. And vice versa. The ecosystem needs to adapt itself and change to move toward a new equilibrium in which everything becomes different, even if only slightly.

This seems to be what you’re describing here. What you allow into yourself, through your senses or in prayer, finds an already established inner-ecology, Tom’s unique personal ecosystem with its worldview that then trustingly yet discerningly welcomes in various new organisms, i.e. a new face, a new idea, a new smell or sight or taste; or divine life. Everything then has to adjust. And it’s all alive, as you say.

And then when you write, it’s then that you actively reorganize your ecosystem to make a fitting place for the new living principles, whatever they might be. Like dreams do at night, defragmenting and reorganizing new information, writing does for you. [Tom: Which makes me a daydream believer? Us: haha] Maybe some new things you’ve taken in have to be chewed up and digested, while others must be expelled or others embraced, while still yet others — like divine grace — well, you have to allow them to consume and digest your ideas, feelings, desires; your soul and spirit … or even the whole of you. Like the Shema commands. So when you consume the Eucharist, as St Augustine says, Christ consumes you; metabolizes you; adapts you to His divine-human ecosystem. The whole Church is this adapted ecosystem, expressed and given birth to in those real symbols of theandric [God-man] biodiversity: Christ in the Sacraments. Saints are the embodyment of the whole Church in its radical adaptation of human life to God-life. Or maybe the other way around, too, if we believe St Irenaeus. [He was speaking of the Catechism #53: “St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure”]

At the heart of your inner culture, Tom, your inner ecology — constituted by your own free act of faith — is the gift of divine love, the indwelling Spirit that is itself the womb of the ecclesial Supernatural Organism, with its own force and vitality and blows-where-it-will purposes. It gets into everything like leaven spreading resurrection through dough. All of which you welcome whenever you pray. Prayer exposes your inner ecology to that of Jesus, joins them.

So whatever enters into you throughout the day encounters not only “Tom,” but God active and living and sorting things out within you. Christ within is busy at work re-creating in you a new creation; a new Ecology; a new Garden. Holiness. Only then, through such saints, can He extend His divine-human culture and ecology into the various ecosystems around you and effect new changes in others’ lives and in the whole material world you inhabit. That’s holiness, and its progress is slow, uneven, filled with setbacks, death and rebirth.

In this line of thought, that means the Cross embodies the event of God introducing Himself into a human ecosystem that has organized itself against, and to the exclusion of, His life. While His love compels Him to risk entry and deadly rejection in our hostile ecosystem, even while He remains long enough (to the end of time!) for that living system to gradually adapt itself to His presence and organize its life around and in and with His life. The Cross is the symbol of God’s willingness to pay an immense cost in order to enter our world and achieve a symbiosis with us. Divinization by hominization. Restructuring our micro and macro cultures according to the omnipotent principle of divine-human love. Jesus. He is the ecosystem of God introduced into the ecosystems of creation, through the consent of a Virgin who welcomes God into our world. 

Something like that.

I said: “What just happened?”

We went off in stunned silence to retire for the night. He showed me where the tea was for the morning. My heart was on fire with this new metaphor. And I could not get out of my mind that night a chilling scene from the movie, Risen, that contains a dialogue between a blind woman and the Roman tribune, Clavius, who is trying to crush the new “Jesus is risen” movement. They are discussing her claim to have encountered the risen Jesus. Listen:

Hopefully in ten years I will have a better way to explain its power.