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…”

Patiently seeking truth

“The Gossips” | 1948 | Norman Rockwell

To be patient means not to allow the serenity and discernment of one’s soul to be taken away. — Josef Pieper

If you had asked me what patience was before I read Josef Pieper’s book on virtue, I would have said something like “the ability to endure hardships over a period of time in pursuit of some good.” While I wouldn’t have been wrong, Pieper gave me a deeper appreciation of the subtlety of patience as a virtue that protects the integrity of making good judgments and steels against violations of truth.

I remember when I was in 7th grade, my tutor Mr. Wallace made me memorize lots of pithy proverbs that, he said, “will take you far in life.” What a lost art! I remember a few of them that were about patience, like “Don’t jump to hasty conclusions,” “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet,” “Everything comes to those who wait,” “Haste makes waste,” “Never cut what can be untied” and “Vainly does he run / the race is by the tortoise won.”

The point Pieper and Wallace made to me was clear, be careful and painstakingly deliberate in seeking the whole truth while making judgments and decisions, and beware of the blinding propulsion of emotion that can take away “serenity and discernment,” leading you to do or say things you will later regret.

Along these lines, Mr. Wallace also said, “There are two philosophies that work in sports and life: either ‘short term pain, long term gain’ or ‘short term gain, long term pain.’” Or as our son Michael said when he was 5 years old, slightly misquoting his mom’s antiphonal proverb, “patience is a virtue” — “I know, I know. Patience will hurt you!”

The Catechism names as one of the “offenses against truth” rash judgment, which “assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” Such rushing to judgment is made exponentially worse when such a judgment is then shared with others and becomes the reputation-damaging sin of calumny, which “harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (#2477). Sinning against another’s reputation, their “name,” is akin to sinning against the Divine Name precisely because each of us is made in the divine image.

Rash judgment and calumny tend to reinforce group-think against the “others,” lending to the calumniators an air of superiority. They offer either a quick rush of pleasure or serve as a means of catharsis for anger and frustration. Indeed, there can be many factors lurking behind these sins, like weakness, laziness, prejudice, anger, fear, hatred, love of drama or gossip addiction.

Yet all of these eschew the evenhanded and meticulous pace of patience which carefully seeks out and weighs evidence in service to truth.

In all of this, it is important to realize the damage such slips in judgment or of the tongue can cause is incalculable, and often irreparable. To reinforce this point, St. Philip Neri once asked a penitent who confessed the sins of detraction and calumny to climb on her roof and empty the contents of her goose-down pillow into the wind, adding, “Then go down pick them all up. For such is the damage caused by the words now scattered everywhere by your tongue.”

Pope Francis made this point powerfully when he said, “Where there is calumny, there is Satan himself.” The word satan in Hebrew means “accuser,” and the word diabolos in Greek means “slanderer.” Two of the premier signatures of diabolical activity are the twisting of truth and division, both of which are well-served by rash judgment and calumny. When Satan exposes sins, it is to sow seeds of division and despair, but when the Spirit exposes sins, it is to sow seeds of reconciliation and hope.

Moral theologian Germain Grisez taught and modeled St. Thomas Aquinas’ dictum, “Seldom affirm, never deny, always make distinctions.” Grisez once said in class, “The whole truth is always greater than what you can see in any given moment. Rarely is there ever something understood or said that does not require further qualification or nuance. Truth seeking requires great discipline and self-mastery, and charity. If you keep to Aquinas’ advice, you’ll rarely be found a fool and will be trusted as truthful. That is, a seeker of the full truth.”

At the end of its discussion of rash judgment and calumny, the Catechism quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola with a tough and very practical challenge:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love.

Keep to this, patiently, and the Truth who is love will be with you.

Let me reward your perseverance in this heady reflection with some “hasty judgment” levity, c/o Ameriquest…



Overcoming alienation

A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labor, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men. — Karl Marx

I was at a McDonald’s getting a burger last year, and a remarkable thing happened. I had ordered my food and was waiting at the counter for my number to be called, reflecting on how preposterous it was that I was getting impatient after only a few minutes had passed, grumbling, “I thought this was fast food! What’s taking so long?”

Then I thought, how quickly an instant gratification culture erodes that key virtue which sustains us in every other worthwhile endeavor, patience. Patience is the ability to pati, “to suffer or endure” inconvenience, difficulty, resistance, pain, delay in the pursuit of any and every good. The ability to wait without complaint.

Lost in these thoughts, and still waiting on my order, I was suddenly interrupted by an elderly African American woman who approached the counter and said to the cashier in a very loud and insistent tone of voice, “I want to speak to your cook who made our food.” The cashier sheepishly replied, “Yes, ma’am, just a minute.” As she walked back, there was an awkward silence and I prepared to witness a confrontation.

A man, probably in his mid-30’s, came out and said to the woman, “Yes ma’am? Can I help you?” She said, “Son, I just wanted to thank you for making such a fine meal for me and my family. You do good work and God bless you for doing it.”

The expression on his face was indescribable — a mixture of puzzlement and pride. Donning a smile, he said, “Well, alright. Thank you, ma’am, that’s so kind of you. I appreciate that very much.”

I at once felt both amazed by her gesture of gratitude, and convicted of my own self-absorbed response to the ‘delay’ in my food’s arrival. I also thought of a man I befriended when I lived in Connecticut who was once a chef himself. Whenever he and I went out to eat together at a restaurant, he would send word to the chef through the server complimenting something very specific about the meal. A number of times, the chef would come out to thank him for the kind words, probably because the specificity of the compliment revealed a chef’s mind.

As I sat in my car eating my food, that quote from Marx came to mind. How important it is to overcome this “alienation of labor,” in part, by maintaining a spirit of gratitude for the countless laborers who make possible all the things we take for granted every day, and to take time, when possible, to voice that gratitude directly. While the socio-economic and political questions of justice that Marx raised must be addressed on a large scale, cultivating a sense of human solidarity on a small scale with acts of gratitude, every day, can have powerful effects.

Since I witnessed this woman’s gesture, I have made it a point to, whenever I pray, begin with a litany of thanks as I look around me and see a world built and consecrated by the sweat of human labor.

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that.

Frittered away by detail


[this is the post I mistakenly posted the other day before it was edited. I had been cobbling it together over a month’s time. Hope it is useful.]

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau

My New Year’s Resolution is to cut away all the fat, all the excess, all the frivolous or directionless investments of time and energy that distract me from what is essential, and from those who are essential in my life. I have a short, doable list of specifics, but that’s the general theme. And, like salvation, this resolve is not a once-saved-always-saved decision, but one that requires a daily renewal of vows.

Fulton Sheen once said that rivers are only strong and deep when they have sharp and firm borders that define their course with purpose. The Desert Fathers argue that among the greatest obstacles to progress in spiritual maturity is “dissipation,” the helter-skelter life. For the Fathers, the endless flitting from thing to thing without sustained attention, without a defined purpose that serves worthy goals, chokes off the virtues of temperance, fortitude and patient endurance. The dissipated may do many good things, but few of them well, none with consistency, and all absent of the ability to build that virtue that alone carries you from good to saint, perseverance.

Early last Fall, I was being pressed against the wall of my limits and knew I needed to reassess my commitments. I re-connected with an old friend I always go to when I want unvarnished honesty from someone who knows me too well, and who understands the challenges of balancing marriage, raising children, work and the rest of life. People like that in your life are gold.

Among other things, he encouraged me to engage in a week-long time audit. He said, “My father used to always say, if you want to know a man’s priorities, follow the check ledger and follow the clock. Where your time is, there is your treasure, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He added that in his experience people tend to be the most defensive when you question their use of time or their money spending habits, “because everyone knows by instinct both lay naked your real priorities.”

He jotted down a list for me on a napkin and asked me to see how I fared in investing my time into these 9 categories: focused time for prayer, focused time with spouse, focused time with children, exercise, eating with others, eating alone, personal leisure, work, sleep. He also required a separate spread sheet for me to examine the time (how much and when) I spent looking at any screens and the purpose of viewing.

Let’s just say, though carrying out the audit was challenging (a lot of work!), the results were eye-popping on all fronts. But the beauty of an audit is it eliminates all space for rationalizing distortions of how I in fact spend my time and allowed me to come up with a plan that addressed concrete issues. And some of the changes I have made have already yielded peace in my life and my family’s life.

We often think of peace as that “oceanic” feeling of tranquility when we feel good about life and have no angst or cares. However, St. Augustine defines peace as tranquillitas ordinis, “the tranquility of order,” and by order he means a life intentionally organized around the demands of justice and charity. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.”

Peace requires that you bring an order to your world that begins with ensuring you are being faithful to your primary life commitments in a sustained and enduring way. This requires simplicity. Simplicity does not mean a mere absence of “stuff” in your life, as much as it evidences a unity of focus, i.e. living so everything conspires toward the service of your primary commitments. This form of simplicity requires a resolve based not just on passing feelings, but on lasting virtues. Which means it takes hard work.

As my oldest son once said when he was 4 years old, repeating the proverb he mistakenly thought my wife had been saying all his life, “I know, mom, patience will hurt you.”

Only a well-ordered life allows for genuine spontaneity, opens an authentic space of freedom for the Spirit to blow where He wills — which is always in the context of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). Those who live by emotional whim, who justify disorder by referring to what God has supposedly “placed on my heart,” ignoring the presiding role of good judgment and the necessity of exercising the hard virtues, don’t experience spontaneity. Rather, they live in disorder constructed around personal preference dressed in religious garb. And it is my experience that these ’emo-gnostics,’ more often than not, cause others who rely on them to suffer far more from the effects of their canonized egoism than they do themselves. But they often don’t notice these casualties, as their priorities are built around their own immediate needs which, they believe, God always blesses.

To bring peace into the world you have to take charge of your life, assume responsibility for your use of time, consider your primary commitments, think of how your decisions affect others, act with purpose and intention, plan and assess regularly how you are doing, and establish a relationship of accountability to keep you honest and cover blind spots. This is a marvelous asceticism, a personal discipline that can grow a garden of virtues and benefit many people’s lives around you who depend on you being faithful to first things first. Our life is to be a living liturgy, and if you look at the Church’s liturgy, well, it’s really really well ordered and planned, with intention. It’s what St. Paul calls the offering of logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), which is far better than emotional worship.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship.

One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, voices well my own vivid awareness of the need to intentionally steward my time: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” May 2018 offer a new opportunity for consecrating time to God, of stewarding this most precious gift that comes to us but once and passes through our hands into eternity. May my every moment become a worthy, intentional, just and love-drenched offering. Not much time left, so let’s get to it…

O Lord, you have shown me my end,
how short is the length of my days. — Psalm 39:5

Ran up

In a homily on preached 9/16/01, a homily I will never forget, Msgr. Slade Crawford said, in a slow, paced, rhythmic tone:

…Those firefighters. Those firefighters. They ran up the stairs while everyone else ran down. What made them run up? [pause, choked up] No greater love. [pause] That. That. That is Christ in us, the hope of glory. That’s real glory. Unfading glory. In the midst of the ruins of a culture of death rises a Phoenix, burning with life. The resurrection. That’s for us, my dear friends. That’s for us to be. To do. Today. Here. Now.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14) …

Let’s roll.

Trust in an unseen God-made-visible


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.