Holy (Unchosen) Family

[This will actually begin a break as I will be away from internet for five days!]

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. — Harper Lee

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of His rescue plan for the human race.

The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or like those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work or what our religion, race or ethnicity is. Or even what parish family we happen to belong to.

George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations, that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.

Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into — relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference — that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are ‘stuck to’ that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “you shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur — one “near by” — love encounters its highest calling.

Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.

The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the Kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.

G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The word “religion,” from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a People — many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.

This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the Cross by His neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as He obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.

I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather we fiercely believe, as a rule (§518), that the parish we belong to — are “bound fast to” — is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our land-locked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-by’s with whom God’s scheming Providence ✟ has arranged for us to learn love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.

May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-by’s, beginning with those nearest us at home.

Your secret is safe with me

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” — William Shakespeare

My father used to say, “With almost no exceptions, assume that anything you say to anyone will be known to all at some point.” In other words, realize that people who truly hold confidences are few, and so entrust your sacred secrets to only those rare people who have proven themselves worthy.  Or as Schopenhauer once put it, “If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner. If I let it slip from my tongue, I am its prisoner.”

I have found this to be an iron law.

Yet I myself have failed innumerable times over the years in keeping to this law. A Confessor once said to me, “If you demand others to respect confidentiality, you have to hold yourself first to the highest standard.” He added, “When someone opens their trust and reveals to you a secret to be kept, you become a sanctuary with a tabernacle in which they reserve their pearl of great price. Don’t throw it to the swine to be trampled.” I couldn’t help but thinking that day of Fulton Sheen’s words,

What is Confession? Nudity. It is nudity of the soul. It is stripping ourselves of all false excuses and shams and pretenses and revealing ourselves as we really are.

And why do we feel such reckless freedom to strip naked before God in that Sacrament? The absolute seal of confidentiality, as it is Christ who receives my secrets, not the priest. The same, I’d say, holds for all the baptized who have become the ears, eyes and heart of Christ. It is Christ in us who receives another’s secret confidence, and we are to be His trustworthy ministers.

The Catechism says, “Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion.” In an age of gossip, calumny, detraction, promise-breaking and truth-dumping, we Christians, as prophets of the Truth-made-flesh, can evangelize first by revering the sacredness of human communication in the way we practice honesty, discretion, and hold confidences.

And in honor of St. John, let’s not just talk about it…

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. — 1 John 3:18

“I hope to lose, my child.”

In his book, Domestic Monastery, Ronald Rolheiser recounts this story:

As a young man, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, once sought spiritual guidance from an old monk named Father Makarios. In his autobiography, he describes a conversation he had with the old monk:

“Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios?” I asked him. “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. … I wrestle with God.” “With God!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “And you hope to win?” “I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist.”

That took my breath away.

Reading this a few weeks ago reminded me of a remarkable (and convicting) conversation I had with an older retired priest I met when I was volunteering at a nursing home in Hartford, Connecticut back in the late 1980’s. He was at the time retired from parish administration, but not from active ministry. He had chosen to dedicate his energies to ministering in various nursing homes, which he called “wastelands of despair.”

He shared with me that his twofold goal was (1) to search out the families of nursing home residents and convince them of the greatness and gravity of the Fourth Commandment and (2) to help these senior men and women find Christ’s power alive in their present weakness and loneliness, as well as in their past regrets. He said (according to my journal),

A society obsessed with youth, personal freedom and productivity casts the elderly aside at its own peril. Not only is a treasury of wisdom lost, and a debt of gratitude left unpaid, but elderly who are abandoned despair at a time of life when hope should shine brightest. Old age is when spiritual maturing should lead to breakthroughs, like forgiving, trusting God or letting go of past fears, hurts and regrets.

But without a family or friends to join that struggle at the end, those breakthroughs can’t happen, and what should have become an opportunity for reconciling, or a softening one’s hard edges, or an opportunity a final surrender to God becomes despair. And that’s not only for the elderly, but for the young whom God has called to join the old in what they used to call the “final agony” at the end of life. Sanctifying for all.

I think that one of the many reasons egoism is exploding in our culture is because it’s more and more unfettered by those who once held the ego at bay … As we insulate the old from the young, the elderly no longer hold a claim on young egos, just as the tens of millions of babies being aborted in the womb no longer hold that same claim on their parents.

…I tell all youth ministers again and again: reconnect your youth with their elders! It will save them all…

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]