Legacy

I have a friend who introduced me to Halík several years ago, and this Czech theologian and philosopher has become one of those writers I return to over and over again to mine the depths of his thought. What I find most helpful about Halík is that he refuses to engage the complexities of modernity with easy answers and facile certitudes that, for example, can seduce Catholics into accepting the straitjackets of political liberalism or conservatism as orthodox canons of judgment.

Okay, now on to his quote…

“The fruits of those years.”

I gave a talk last week on the Catholic meaning of legacy, which I described as “the world you leave behind in your wake.” I argued that as people of faith we should be deeply intentional about the legacy we are choosing and planning to leave behind for others, not simply leaving our legacy to chance. I made the point that so much of the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel is Jesus ensuring the memorial of His legacy of sacrificial love would not be left to chance. Nowhere in John’s Gospel does Jesus command love until the Last Supper, and then by explicitly linking it to “as I have loved you.”

St. Paul understands this well when he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He’s clear, his legacy is to be the Christ-legacy.

I asked the participants to memento mori, “remember death” and imagine what people from their past and present worlds would say of them at their funeral. What would these people inscribe on your tombstone to sum up your life? What do you believe God will say of you before the Angels at your Final Judgment?

A perfect meditation for the liturgical month of November.

How do you hope the world you have left in your wake will one day be described as in a word or a phrase? More just? More generous? More hopeful? More kind? More honest? More merciful? More peaceful? More compassionate? More sacrificial? More patient? More joyful? More hopeful? More forgiving? More beautiful?

And how are you living each moment to make that so?

I find this question my most fruitful method for examining my conscience every evening.

What is the “word” God has given you to speak to the world? The “letter” He has given you to write?  To whom has He sent you to speak it by your life? Do you prayerfully discern this unique mission every day?  Pope Francis said, “Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

What is your mission name in Eternity? Ask Him, then do it.

You have so many defects

“If you have so many defects, why are you surprised to find defects in others?” ― St. Josemaría Escrivá

My grandfather once wrote me in a letter titled, “What is a Great Man?”,

…Great men never gossip to harm another’s name and reputation. You may speak about someone in their absence, but only if you are prepared to tell them to their face the same. Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t like, and then happily pass it along. Just be aware that anyone worthy of respect will immediately lose respect for you when you gossip to them…

Why do we find such relish in passing on news of another’s failure, malice, idiocy? Is it because it makes us feel superior, distracts attention from our issues, feeds our envy or soothes our own insecurities? Or maybe it creates a sense of belonging with others because we seem to share a common loathing of some person or group? I have always found that the best litmus test for how out of touch I am with my own crap is how freely I engage in gossip about others’ crap.

Jesus directly confronted this deep-seated human tendency in the Sermon on the Mount, and prescribed the remedy:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Know thyself! Self-knowledge, explored under the light of divine grace, has unlimited potential to make us humble, compassionate and patient with others’ faults and failings. I am riddled with faults and failings, sins and vices, and when I find myself dealt with mercifully by the God who forgives and forgets, and does not gossip about me behind my back, I beg Him for the chance to practice the same toward the most irritating or offensive person I can find.

For people of faith, the premier path to such self-knowledge is prayerful reflection on one’s own life and actions in the light of the commandments, and in the light of Christ and His teaching. Christ alone reveals to us who we were made to be and does not simply canonize our mediocrity. And if you ask Him in prayer to be honest with you about you as you examine/examen your life? Well, let’s just say He loves answering that prayer.

But another indispensable path to self-knowledge is an honest and trustworthy friend, parent, sibling, spouse, mentor, confidante with whom you can be brutally honest about yourself, and to whom you grant full permission to be brutally honest right back atcha. By my lonesome, I have an unlimited capacity for self-deception and rationalization, and an even better knack for finding people who will aid and abet me in realizing this delusive capacity.

Praying the litany of humility is good, if dangerous, but even better is allowing flesh-and-blood others to lead me to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth that is real humility.

How often do you say to a trusted other, “Be totally honest, what do I need to be aware of, work on, deal with, face?” And then listen non-defensively and act proactively? When you do, please pray for that honest person whom you so desperately need, and thank God for them. And then pay it forward, with love, confidence and courage. The world will be better for it.

When my gods died

Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us …

It is very odd that so much casual Christian thinking should be worship of Satan, that we should think of the punitive satanic God as the only God available to the sinner. It is very odd that the view of God as seen from the church should ever be simply the view of God as seen from hell. For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin.

When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. — Herbert McCabe, O.P.

I remember not long after my return to the faith, I was plagued with terrible guilt as the whole mass of my twisted lifestyle was suddenly placed, so to speak, in the light of God. So many of the behaviors and attitudes that had never for even a moment bothered me before now became branding irons that seemed to burn in me the voice of God, saying, “You Suck.” Those were exactly the words I heard in my mind when I would pray.

For a while, it was so bad that I started to dread prayer and Mass, the very things that in the first weeks after my conversion gave me such hope and joy. They only served to dredge up the darkness. Who needs that?

During my break from school during the summer of 1987, I went for the first time in my life, at the suggestion of a priest, on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. The first day there was torture, as all of my past assailed me and I felt God hated me as I was. I decided to go to Confession to one of the monks, even though I suspected — feared — that it would only confirm my newfound self-loathing.

In fact, it turned my inner world inside out and upside down.

After sharing with him my sins and the searing guilt, he said, “Young man, it’s time to let your gods die. Dispose of your idol factory. I don’t think you have yet met the real God. He is here now, in this place. Do you sense Him? Turn toward Him now and give Him all your gods.” He pointed to the crucifix on the wall, and continued, “Here is the true God, Jesus Christ. He died for you, not to judge or condemn you, but to save you from your worst enemy: you. He is not hate, but love. He loved you before you were conceived. His love for you is so great, He even renounced His omniscience and has forgotten all of your sins. You’re the only one holding on to them.”

It was like being drenched beneath a massive waterfall of mercy, tenderness, kindness, gentleness, love. As he absolved, my guilt dissolved. It was so clear to me in that moment that the distortions my life, and my life choices, had etched into my soul warped my vision of God. In an instant, the god of me-writ-large was shattered by my encounter with the God of gods. And though this experience did not liberate me from all struggles in the future, it did radically expose lies that would likely have led me to hide from God forever.

At the end of his advice, the monk said to me, “Be aware that you will always be tempted to made a god out of your emotions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking God is angry and disappointed when you’re feeling guilty or depressed, or God is happy when you’re feeling optimistic and upbeat.” He again pointed to the crucifix, saying, “When you sin, stand facing Him. This crucified God is always mercy and love toward you, eternally. When you say, ‘Lord, have mercy’ you are simply saying, ‘God, be who you are toward me!’ But when you turn away from Him, and stand facing away from Him, you will get lost in the hissing mass of those who mocked and condemned Him.”

He handed me Chotki beads, and said, “This is your prayer from now on.” The Jesus Prayer…

Goods are meant for everyone

Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone — Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Back around the year 2000, I went to a lecture series by Anglican biblical scholar, Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. It was on the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. During the second lecture, he discussed Jesus’ radical teachings on riches, poverty and generosity to the poor by reflecting on 14:12-13:

[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

During his reflections, I wrote down copious notes, and later mixed them with my own insights that his talks inspired. This is an excerpt from my journal:

+ + +

As he was speaking about this text from Luke, Dr. Bailey incidentally mentioned, “I was talking to a Catholic priest in Lebanon who said, ‘You know, Ken, you can talk to people about how faith impacts politics or macro-economics, and they may get hot under the collar. But you can still be on speaking terms later. But talk about the demands faith makes on their sex life or personal wallets? My Lord! You’ll find yourself stepping on landmines and may not survive…'”

“Yet,” Bailey said,  “when Jesus met Zaccaeus He, in a room full of other tax collectors and sinners, zeroed in on Zaccaeus’ overstuffed money bag. But notice Zaccaeus’ response: ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ THIS is salvation, Jesus says, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’ In Luke it’s overwhelmingly clear that ‘being saved’ looks like wealth being transformed into justice and alms.”

Bailey further noted, “One of the most important functions of the earliest monastic communities in Egypt and Syria was to offer Christians living in the world a radical witness as to what economics might look like if Jesus laid hold of it. By their voluntary poverty, monks were to keep before the whole Church a sustained critique of lavish lifestyles, of possessiveness or envy or greed. Monks showed the joy of riches is found only in their potential to enrich many.”

Then he quoted the description of the early Christian community in Acts 2:44-45:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

“And,” he added, “if you look at church history, when the monks get rich, the whole Church suffers loss.”

Then he said,

This Lukan logic has always been present at the heart of the Eucharistic Offertory, when the bread, wine and a tithe of alms are brought forward to the Altar of Sacrifice. One’s 10% tithe was never meant to be God’s “cut” of your wealth, leaving you the other 90% to do with as you please. No! Just like the bread and wine, the tithe signified handing over of all of one’s possessions and wealth, placing everything at the feet of Christ’s whole Body as a service of worship.

Yes, you can’t serve God and mammon precisely because the ‘and’ reveals each as a mutually exclusive competitor — some for God’s ends, but the rest for my own. However, you can serve God with mammon when you acknowledge all of it belongs to God, and so all of it belongs to your neighbors. Which are one and the same thing for Jesus.

Our life mission then becomes prudently placing all we have at the service of others, for the glory of God. The God of Jesus, that is, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ (2 Cor. 8:9).

At the end of his riff, Dr. Bailey noted,

For the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, the principle sign of salvation is detachment from riches. A detachment that opens one to generosity animated by love for the apple of God’s eye: the poor, orphan, widow, all who live at the margins of life.

But for Jesus, salvation is not simply frugality. Misers are the most frugal of all. Salvation means a frugality that enriches generosity because it is inspired by love. Which is why Christians should regularly subject their wallets, and the wallet culture they inhabit, to a regular Gospel audit.

I’m off to Confession now….[end of journal entry]

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” — Rom. 12:21

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The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. — Shakespeare

During these days of trial in the church and the world, when the failures of humanity seem to tower, it is now, above all, that Christians must show to the world “the quality of mercy.”

Mercy is not the absence of justice, it is the fusion of justice and love. Mercy is what love becomes when it meets injustice. Mercy is not soft or weak, but is infinitely more fierce and costly than justice alone. Justice alone condemns and contains, rages and seeks the punishment of the evildoer in order to bring justice the wronged. But justice wed to love for the persecuting, reviling, evildoing, hating, cursing enemy seeks restoration, redemption and remedy for both victimizer and victim.

But mercy is infinitely more extreme than just “seeking” these things.

In Jesus the fusion of love and justice compels Him to embrace the Father’s command to identity with the innocent victim and the guilty victimizer, to bear their burdens that both might be saved. In the Passion He drank our poison to become our antidote. This is what made Him sweat blood and bargain with the Father in the Garden of Agony (Mk. 14:36). This:

For he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

From the Cross, wholly identified with all innocent victims, Jesus pleads for the victimizers:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. — Lk. 23:24

In fact, He identified with evildoers in the most radical sense imaginable:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Cor. 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — Gal. 3:13

St. Paul, having himself become Christ (Gal. 2:20), embraces this same terrible logic of mercy in response to his (Jewish) people’s rejection of the Messiah:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. — Rom 9:3

In a most stunning passage from Pope Benedict, we see this explosive tension between justice and love erupts within God as a war:

God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

We who are in Christ, who have fallen deep into the paschal waters of Baptism, who dare sign ourselves with the Cross, who ingest the Food and Drink born of this war internal to God, must evince, must live out this same ethos of mercy. Seventy times seven times a day.

Whenever we embody this crazed love of our extremist God, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

The world outside of Christ either condemns or canonizes evil, but Christians carry evil — and evildoers — on their backs as a Cross (Lk. 9:23), by every means possible. By prayer and reparative penance, by fasting, by forgiveness, by alms or by charity-drenched fraternal correction. And in a million other merciful ways.

In fact, if we resolve to be tough and fierce in the face of evil as disciples of the Christ, with heroic courage, we must don those most fearsome weapons of the Cross that alone cause hell to shudder in terror. These were the same weapons with which the dead Christ harrowed hell’s infernal abyss. These are the weapons by which martyrs conquer evil.

Are we courageous enough to wield these weapons in these dark times? Let’s dare…

…as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, to clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry

In the midst of these days of headlines filled with news of predatory priests and cover-ups, God placed in my path very recently a lovely story I consider to be a thing of great beauty. Let me share.

A woman I’ve known for a few years was in New Orleans recently for a meeting. As she was walking into a restaurant, she said she noticed a $100 bill lying on the cobblestone sidewalk just outside the front doors. She picked it up and went inside, telling the host, “I found this on the ground outside. If someone comes and tells you they lost a $100 bill, please give it to them. Otherwise I will pick it up on the way out.”

Two hours later, as she left, the host informed her no one had claimed it. So she took it and left him her number in case someone claimed it later.

What did she do with it then? What would you have done? What would I have done? Of course, there is no one right answer.

She told me she immediately prayed and asked God to inspire her to give it to whomever He wished. She said, “I knew it wasn’t mine. It belongs to someone out there in need. And God knows best who that is.”

I have not spoken to her since that conversation to find out what she did with it. But the vision beneath her approach is what really captured my attention. Yes, her honesty and sense of fairness in not simply taking it as “free money” — finders keepers, losers weepers — was praiseworthy and noble. But it was the naturalness of that phrase, “It belongs to someone out there in need” — that was, to me, remarkable. It reminded me so much of St. Basil the Great’s words,

When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

Fact is, this is how this woman lives her life all the time. She spends her own “mad money” on food gift cards to hand out to beggars (and then speaks with each by name when she gives), volunteers at a soup kitchen, offers practical counsel and assistance to mentally ill homeless. She rarely talks about the poor or poverty, can’t wax eloquent criticizing unjust economic policies, but simply quietly does justice. And in that, she reminds me of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s words,

…poverty embraced in faith does something to a person in the deep resources of his being. It matures him, develops him, makes him receptive to what the Lord Jesus is about. It is not merely a superficial ability to parrot words about the dire straits of the third and fourth worlds, to proclaim with an abundance of rhetoric but with no follow through in life…

Gospel-style poverty is what she thought, what she prayed, what she did the day she found that $100.

Pillar of the world.

High Fives or Watered Gardens?

[beware: this is a meandering post]

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
To choose always the hardest. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was talking with one of my children the other night [I will say it is my son to keep it non-specific] about people who spend their lives fending off all criticism and any honest feedback from others. Actually, we were speaking of a specific person, but then generalized a bit. Whether by isolating themselves, feigning omniscience, posturing as the mountaintop cynic, claiming a victim status (not my fault), or sustaining an elaborate set of strategies to elicit praise, affirmation and agreement from those around them, these people live in a perpetual buffered zone.

He said, “You just can’t get close to them because you can never be totally real with them. You can’t have a real discussion because you know they’re going to go into defensive mode and it’s always about them winning. It’s like they’re always trying to prove something or can’t learn from you, and that’s just so fake and annoying.”

The conversation was sparked after we listened to a recent live performance by Sigrid of her song, High Five, which is all about this kind of person.

We talked about the best way to relate to this person and maybe help them not feel so threatened or just to face the facts. We talked about this person’s family upbringing and what in the family system might have helped to form those ways of dealing with life. We also agreed that all of us can fall into variations of that pattern, making the distance between us and this person only a matter of degree. He said, “Yeah, I pray for him to get a dose of humility and for me to have patience.”

We talked about the importance of honest friendships or even good therapy to confront such things. I said to my son that one of the main goals of friendship and of therapy is to help us to acquire virtues, like courage, humility or honesty, and added, “Years ago I went to therapy, and quickly learned that in the end it’s there to help you become a good person, not just a more functional person. In fact, the underlying goal of all education is supposed to be cultivating a virtuous character. But we’ve mostly lost that.”

One thing my wife did/does exceptionally well as a parent is work hard at intentionally cultivating virtues in our children and their friends. When they were younger, she gave an award to our children at the end of each school year honoring their unique “beatitude” virtues. For her, chores were about solidarity, dealing with irritating siblings was about patience, organizing your time well was a matter of prudence, admitting you messed up was about practicing humility, putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher was linked to justice, serving in the soup kitchen was a work of mercy, or asking someone how their day went (and then listening) meant choosing charity over selfishness.

Once when one of our children said, “I don’t feel like doing that,” Patti replied, “If I did what I felt like, you’d starve.” She also liked to say, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”

I flew up to D.C. to meet with the late Carmelite scholar, Fr. Kieran Kavanagh, back in 2006 to discuss my dissertation on St. John of the Cross. It was a great honor. Among the many things he taught me, I recall him saying something particularly remarkable. “One might say,” he said in his very gentle voice, “that for St. Teresa the whole purpose of prayer is to grow virtue. Because when you grow virtue, your soul is conformed to the divine image and so is most suitable to union with God. To be merciful is to be disposed to union with divine mercy; to be just, disposed to union with divine justice; kind, with His kindness; and so on.”

He then added, “As you know, she describes different kinds of prayer as various methods of acquiring water, and says the virtues are flowers in the garden of the soul. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say for her the water of prayer is given for sake of the flowers of virtue. Which means if you want to judge the health of your prayer life, she’d tell you, don’t concern yourself with lofty feelings or inspired sentiments. No, she’d say examine your response next time someone crosses you…”