A linguistic Lent

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. – Matthew 12:36-37

My spiritual director once advised me to attend to my use of words during Lent. I was to reflect at the end of each day how I had used my words either to reveal or conceal God. I was also to pray each morning asking God to use my words to good effect throughout the day. He cited Pythagoras’ famous saying: “Be silent, or say something better than silence,” saying this was a good rule to live by. He gave me four pithy Scriptural texts for evaluating my speech:

Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”

James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

Luke 12:2-3: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

The first quote was to remind me to avoid deception and duplicity, and practice truthful sincerity. The second counseled me to use my words for building others up and conveying grace. The third placed in stark relief my high calling as a teacher who will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment for how I used my influence and walked my talk. The fourth is about the radically public nature of all words and deeds. Sirach 23:18-19 makes a similar point:

The man who dishonors his marriage bed
says to himself, “Who can see me?
Darkness surrounds me, walls hide me,
no one sees me. Who can stop me from sinning?”
He is not mindful of the Most High,
fearing only human eyes.
He does not realize that the eyes of the Lord,
ten thousand times brighter than the sun,
observe every step taken
and peer into hidden corners.

When I spent time on that last quote from St. Luke’s Gospel throughout Lent, it gave me a radically new vantage on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here’s what I wrote:

When I reveal my secret sins to another human being, one who mystically represents Christ, I anticipate right now the all-disclosing nature of the Final Judgment in the world to come when all will be known to all. Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko said it this way: “Confession is a Sacrament of the Age to Come, when even the secrets of the heart will be revealed to the whole of creation. Which is why it demands brutal honesty. I say to those who confess: get it all out now and expose it to the mercy of God, who will swallow up all your perverse words and deeds in forgetfulness.” Over the years, I have become increasingly aware that every word I speak echoes on into eternity. I often think that each and every one of my words will become a song in His presence: either a hymn of blessing or a dirge of cursing.

Scripture scholar N.T. Wright says that humanity, made in the divine image, is given the vocation of making audible and visible God’s “countenance” toward the world. All living and non-living creatures are meant to encounter in us God’s provident oikonomia, i.e. the manner in which He tends to this vast cosmic garden He has established. Human beings alone of all creatures are made to be priests, mediators between creatures and the Creator; and by the Incarnation, Christ has brought that vocation to perfection. We have been gifted with the singular power of giving voice to God’s Word of blessing toward creation and, in turn, the power to bless, praise and thank the Creator on behalf of all creation. This is why Jesus says, “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Being made in the image of a Speaking God means no word is a throwaway word.

So let’s get to it. By our words, at every moment, let’s become the eloquence of God.

Co-hosting “In the Heartland”

Arinze

Bishop Pates, Cardinal Arinze and myself after the show. Photo by Lisa Bourne

Nick

Nicholas and Dad in 2009. Photo by Lisa Bourne

When I lived in Iowa, I served for three years as a co-host on a weekly radio show with Bishop Richard Pates which was aptly called, “In the Heartland with Bishop Pates.” The show was a real growing experience for me. I had zero interest in being a co-host when the Bishop asked me, but was grateful for the opportunity.

There were some embarrasing moments and some euphoric moments. Among the high points were interviews with the late Francis Cardinal George, Francis Cardinal Arinze, JP2’s close friend Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, and the day when my son Nicholas came to co-host with me at the Iowa State Fair while Bishop was away. My most embarrasing moment was on our fourth show, when Bishop Pates spontaneously asked me to explain my doctoral dissertation to listeners. I was thrilled as I had defended only a few weeks before. As I began to describe the dissertation thesis, the Bishop began to make frantic hand gestures toward me. Later I would discover that he was attempting to tell me I was speaking too loudly. Because his animated gestures continued throughout my whole explanation, anyone listening would have wondered how I got a PhD.

One of my favorite shows was a 2012 interview we did with a friend of mine, Dr. Damon Cudihy, Ob/Gyn. His personal story is a stark witness to the real costs associated with accepting and carrying out his call to holiness as a Catholic layman striving for moral and professional excellence. He’s a personal hero of mine. And he’s got an amazing family.

I include here the first 15-minute segment of the show. Pray for him and his family. Here’s his private practice in Louisiana. Listen here:

“You should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15)

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

One of my daughters loves to share with me “pay it forward” videos of people who are the beneficiaries of someone’s kindness and then go on to do someone else a good turn. She asked me if I remembered anyone in my past whose kindness inspired me to be kind. Of course, there are so many people I could name, but what immediately came to mind was a tutor I had in 7th grade — “Mr. Wallace.”

I had flunked out of 7th grade and had to repeat it at a different school. It was a dark time in my life, and I had really lost a sense of confidence in my ability to succeed. I hated school. I remember very well the first day I sat with him. He had curly brown hair and was wearing a kind smile on his face. He said, as I recall: “My job is to help you see how much you have to offer the world and show you that you’re much smarter than you think you are.” I remember this because I never expected it to come out of a teacher’s mouth and it seemed so outrageous. Offer the world? Smart? Week after week, month after month, year after year — for three years — we met and went over homework, reading skills, table manners, social skills, handling disappointment, and he often talked about my favorite subject at the time: weather. He was interested because I was. He planted a seed of confidence in me that grew, and I never forgot him. When I encountered Jesus Christ while I was in college, that seed exploded into a tree as my mind, for the first time, opened with a hunger for knowledge of everything.

Four years ago I decided to look him up. It took me weeks of detective work, but I found him. Married with kids and grandkids, living in Pennsylvania. I wrote him a letter to express my gratitude and share with him where I had gone in life. He wrote me back a simple response: “Tom, I am appreciative for your kindness in making the effort to tell me this. I vaguely remember you, but I’m old now. I am happy for your successes and am glad to know I played a small part. Those are the things make the hard times along the way meaningful.”

Who are your Mr. Wallaces?

Below are the videos my daughter, and a seminarian, shared with me that I found most inspiring.

Spirituality worthy of Christ

Nikoli Berdyaev. wikimedia.org

“So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbour, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbour to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk 10:25ff ). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is his taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.” — Pope Francis

“Spiritualty is in vogue these days. Everybody likes to say, ‘Oh, sorry, I’m spiritual but not religious.’ Well, sorry but you ain’t Christian. So much of what is called spirituality today is just dressed up egoism, focused on personal fulfillment and self-satisfaction, substituting spiritual pleasures for carnal ones. Oh, yes, we can talk about being really very self-aware, self-actualized, emptied of the ego, but it’s had without obeying the divine commandments and repenting 70 x 7 times to God and neighbor for our falls. It’s communing with a god of our own making. The holy Fathers say obedience to the commandments of God, war with the vices, submitting yourself to the demands of charity in God’s family, a church packed with smelly, stinky, unpleasant brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers you never woulda chose: this is spirituality. Real spirituality is obsessed not with ego-satisfaction, but it’s single-minded about God’s glory and the neighbor’s needs. The real test of real spirituality ain’t personal peace or contentment, it’s faithfulness in the blackest darkness, love without reciprocity, and joy in the monotony of daily duties. St. Maximus, who had his hand chopped off and his tongue cut out, said: ‘To harbor no envy, no anger, no resentment against an offender is still not to have charity for him. It is possible, without any charity, to avoid rendering evil for evil. But to render, spontaneously, good for evil — such belongs to a perfect spiritual love.’ That’s spirituality for the Christian. And St. James says that real religion means visiting orphans and widows (James 1:27).” — Fr. Tom Hopko

“Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” – Nikoli Berdyaev

“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear gathering mold in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.” ― St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great. cloisteredlife.com

Salt of the earth

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Recently I spoke with two people, not connected with each other in any way, who — funny enough — used the same phrase to describe their plight: “No good deed goes unpunished.” I found them both inspiring and asked each to give me permission to share their stories and thoughts.

The first person I spoke with was a dad who shared with me the difficulty he has faced over the years with imposing discipline on his youngest son — who is now an adult — who always had a mind of his own. The greatest challenge he faced, though, was not from his son but from the parents of his sons’ friends who, he said, don’t share his commitment to imposing consequences for unacceptable behavior. He told me that one time when his son’s grades in two classes had dropped to failures, he told the boy’s baseball coach to sit his son out from the next game. It was an important game, and the boy was a key player. The coach wholeheartedly agreed. But during the game the parents attending the game, after discovering the reason for the boy’s being benched, reamed the father out and told him his priorities were “all screwed up.” One of the parents yelled into his face, “I don’t give a shit what he does in geometry or biology! What’s that got to do with this game?” He said, “I calmly said back, ‘It means I’m teaching him about real life priorities.'” He went on to tell me,

I try not to get angry and judge these folks, but it seems so many parents these days give their kids seriously screwed up messages about life’s priorities and make their kids believe life owes them something. I say, if you teach your kids now that you have to do your part in life, work hard and accept the consequences for your poor decisions, later they will be ready to contribute as good citizens and good Christians. I wanted my son to think real hard about the effect his bad decisions had on his team before he’d go and blow off his schoolwork again. … These parents become slaves to their kids’ whims, and are afraid to say “no” to them. I’m glad my mom and dad were tough on me, but I couldn’t see it when I was young. Now I can see the dark alleys I would have gone down without their iron resolve. The hardest thing to do as a parent, I think, is to make tough decisions to save your kids from bad influences or steer them away from bad choices. It’s hard to have your kid say they hate you. Rather have them hate me now than hate me later. Like with me, I hope my son will see I was helping him learn now the hard lessons life will throw at him one day. Sometimes love means your kids hate you for a while, but that’s okay because it’s not about me. I’m a dad for my son’s benefit, not mine. We reap what we sow, and one day we’re gonna find ourselves with a country full of outta control takers, not givers and sacrificers who put family, country and others first. Look, these kids know exactly what’s going on, that their parents’ll take their side on almost anything and let ’em get away with anything. They eat it up. They’ll play it up to the nth degree. Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. I’ve had a lot of hard jobs over the years, but being a parent’s the toughest job there is. But the best.

The pain in his eyes burned into me.

The second person I spoke with was a young lady — in her late 20’s — who shared with me her commitment to chastity in dating. In particular, she shared how that commitment had led, over the last several years, to her losing several relationships with guys who had shown serious long-term interest in her (and she in them). But all of them, when they finally realized that she is not willing to have sex before marriage, excused themselves in one way or another from the relationship. “Even with the churchgoing guys,” she said, “it seems next to impossible to find a man who thinks waiting is the way to go.” She added, “I tell these guys: ‘Seriously? That’s all you’re in this for?’ I told one of them, if you can’t give that up for me now, what won’t you be able to give up later? … It’d be totally nice to have some chivalry make a comeback. Yeah, I know, dream on. But I haven’t given up.”

For both of them, faith played a large role in giving them strength to carry on. The father mentioned his parish priest’s powerful preaching that helped him get through every week. “He preaches from the heart. I can relate to him. It’s like God’s talking directly to me. Gives me hope to keep going. He totally gets what we go through. He knows we got it tough. And he’s not phony. Not like some other priests — no offence intended — who seem to preach only into the clouds. I think the difference is he gets to know us and listens to us. So he gets us.”  The young woman said “clinging to prayer” was what kept her strong and hopeful. She said (as she shed tears), “I talk to Jesus all the time about this. I’m very honest. And He’s honest back. I don’t always like His answers, and I don’t think He always likes to hear what I have to say, either. But I always know He’s got my back. I always tell Him I’ve got a long list of questions for Him that I’ll ask when I see Him one day. I’m sure He’s got one for me, too.”

I want to kiss their feet. These people are the ones Jesus in Matthew 5:13 called the “salt of the earth.” Salt, in the ancient world, was not used principally for flavoring food but to keep it from rotting. So salty people keep culture from going rotten. That’s what Christians, clinging to Christ the Rock, are called to be.

It is often said nowadays that the present century thirsts for authenticity. Especially in regard to young people it is said that they have a horror of the artificial or false and that they are searching above all for truth and honesty. These “signs of the times” should find us vigilant. Either tacitly or aloud — but always forcefully — we are being asked: Do you really believe what you are proclaiming? Do you live what you believe? Do you really preach what you live? Our evangelizing zeal must spring from true holiness of life. — Blessed Paul VI

Religion-free Zone

staticflickr.com

Repost from 2012. Seemed timely. I did not have time to edit it down, so sorry for the untidiness I am sure it contains.

The following reflection came as a result of a question my wife asked me the other day about the Democrats’ debate over the words “God-given.” I had taken a few moments to email her my response, but since then I have been thinking more and more about what’s at stake in this debate. My thoughts are a bit tangled and dense and partial, but it seems worthwhile to toss in my 2 cents as it becomes increasingly important to shed more light than heat in these pre-election days.

DNC and Secularism

The vigorous debate during the Democratic National Convention over whether or not to remove “God” from its platform is related to the Party’s more general adoption of a certain conception of what role religion should/should not play in a secular State. Their position, regardless of one’s  judgment of its truth claims, is an attempt to intelligently respond to an unavoidable and complex question: How does a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy negotiate among seemingly irreconcilable differences while preserving social and political unity?

In highly simplified form, the liberal democratic view argues that creating a political context for religious pluralism to flourish requires faith-based reasoning (i.e. arguments drawn from the sacred texts or the worldview of a religious tradition) to be considered as a non-public form of reason which, therefore, cannot serve as the basis for the laws that govern public life. In this view, faith-based arguments are disqualified from possessing any publicly binding force by the very fact that they arise from a distinctive theological tradition. Within in a pluralistic society, they argue, this would allow the part to determine the whole.

This premise, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to a progressive excision within the socio-political order of all explicit forms of “religious reasoning” in defining rights and duties. What replaces such religious reasoning?  A secular form of reason that is considered to be truly rational, critical and objective, freed from the irrational/supra-rational biases religion is said to bring. Here “secular” means a God-sanitized worldview devoid of any transcendent or theological meaning. Such a God-sanitized view of justice and human fulfillment is to be based, the argument goes, on a “reasonable consensus” funneled through a legislative or judicial process. Such prevailing consensuses are understood to be invested with the binding force of “public reason,”arrived at by a thoroughly secularized, and therefore reasonable people.

It is this last claim to a truly rationally grounded justice that really becomes for secularists the sticky wicket, as it begs the question (as Alasdair McIntyre phrased it), whose justice and which rationality gets to be considered the enforceable one, as there are many competing claimants to these titles. Do majority groups claiming reason on their side determine truth claims?

Naked Zone

This version of the secular State attempts to solve the challenges found in a religiously pluralistic democracy by cleansing the temple of public life from all vestiges of religious reasoning and rhetoric and putting in religion’s place an alternative ideology that — it is argued — is capable of bearing a sufficient neutrality to allow for a peaceful and fair coexistence. Religion is privatized and hemmed in by the truth claims of “public reason,” punished when it transgresses its carefully traced out ghetto walls. Such secularists argue that their approach alone is capable of negotiating the seemingly irreconcilable differences among religious traditions by leaving, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called it, a Naked Public Square where all are welcome to engage in non-religious reasoning without distinction or judgment (sic).  In the religion-free zone, tolerance, the Queen of the Virtues, allows religious people to be themselves in the privacy of their own heart and personal opinion.

Imposing Faith?

In a culture dominated by this form of secularism, the social-psychological effects tend, as I said, toward the radical privatization of religion, cultivating a mindset among religious practitioners that religiously-based language and worldviews are to be seen as a strictly personal and private affair. Such a culture levies stiff social sanctions on anyone who attempts to proclaim or argue for truth-claims that arise from reason informed by faith. Evangelization becomes proselytizing, and faith-inspired arguments are deemed intrusive, aggressive and intolerant impositions of private and non-binding reasoning on the naked public square. Religious truth is seen as a threat to the inviolable integrity of pluralistic worldviews that are, by their very diversity, the soul of a truly democratic society. Truth, it is argued, transgresses the neutral safe-zone that buffers a rival Church and State. Because it makes universal and binding claims on reason, truth makes those who’ve rejected it feel unfairly “judged” by its purveyors. Only the contemporary incarnations of secular reason, garnered by a democratic consensus, can claim authority to judge.

I’d argue that this nearly invisible cultural air we breathe is far more important in effecting the progressive elimination of religion from public life than is the highly visible political/legal battle. Cultural revolutions precede and empower political and legal revolutions.

It’s About Morality

In addition, it is the moral dimension of religious traditions’ reasoning that comes to the fore in the struggle for dominance in the public square, especially in regard to the Big Three moral battlegrounds: life-issues, marriage, sexuality. Moral questions serve as the prime subjects of the naked public square’s ravenous appetite for total control. That’s an important point to make, as the moral assertion of the inviolable dignity of all human life or of marriage as heterosexual, indissoluble and monogamous historically originates in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief in a God who created humanity in the divine image and established a determinate moral order that is known both by divine revelation and right reason. So anyone who wishes to deconstruct these moral arguments in favor of, for example, abortion or same-sex marriage knows they must contend with their theological associations.

Now, these arguments can, a Catholic would say, be persuasively made apart from theological sources because faith and reason are harmonious. But because our culture usually abhors such fine distinctions it’s usually quite easy for critics of faith-associated moral arguments to make a slam dunk, guilt-by-association argument, bringing a swift end to the hegemony of Judeo-Christian morality in America. Throw a “fanatic” epithet here, “fundamentalist” there and “bigot” over there, and the case is closed. Genuine dialogue is over.

This point reminds me of an interesting perspective a seasoned priest once shared with me. It went something like this:

A Catholic parent recently pleaded with me to speak to her son who had returned from his first year of college claiming to be an atheist. My first question to him was, “What’s the name of the girl you’re sleeping with?” In my experience, the rejection of organized religion or the idea of God is often arrived at through the back door of a morally dissonant life. My chosen lifestyle is incompatible with my faith, so I can either give up my immoral behavior, live in guilt or reject the faith. Not a tough choice for many. I say that many atheists or agnostics begin not as atheists but as amoralists who need atheism to sustain their desire to be unhindered.

Final Vatican Thoughts

I will end my considerations with a quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that weighs in on this debate with some keen insights:

In democratic societies, all proposals are freely discussed and examined. Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism. The oppression of the weak by the strong would be the obvious consequence. The marginalization of Christianity, moreover, would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization.

In Summary…

wikimedia.org

This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”