I promise

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My oldest daughter Maria introduced me to the band Radiohead two years ago with her Mashley cover of No Surprises. Recently, she and Ashley went to their concert in New Orleans. Loved them. I’ve not listened to much of their music, but all I have heard I have liked.

Radiohead re-released a 20 year old song about a week or so ago. It’s called, I Promise. Eerie and haunting. According to a number of articles I read, the lyrics consider the dis-ease of disconnection and isolation that increasingly dominates our hyper-mobile and hyper-technological society. The surrealist music video reminds me of Eleanor Rigby — “all the lonely people.” Throughout the song, the thread that binds together a seemingly aimless wandering of angst is the unchanging refrain, “I promise.”

As I listened to it throughout the week, I thought quite a bit about promises.

Promises anchor us in the storm, keep us from being set adrift, losing our inner compass and stability. Baptismal promises, marital promises, ordination promises, professional promises. Promises manifest and confirm your character, forge and focus your deepest commitments. My grandfather wrote me once, “Tommy, always be a man of your word. If you don’t have your word, you’ve nothing to offer. Being true to your word in the face of resistance is the highest act of courage. Without this greatness is impossible. Words kept channel swift and powerful waters into a deep river that cuts rock, broken words diffuse into a shallow and murky swamp that covers rock with mud.” The Scriptures are filled with promises offered, promises kept and promises broken. God is above all true to His promises, true to His Name, a God of His Word — “Faithful and True” (Rev. 19:11).

The word promise comes from the Latin pro- “before” and mittere “to release, let go; send, throw.” So, in a sense, it means to “throw yourself” into the future. A future uncertain, indefinite, unknown. All promises are future oriented, throw caution to the wind in a reckless act of hope. Hope in God alone makes possible absolute and unconditional promises, as the martyrs testify eloquently. “Love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev. 12:11).

Last October on our 21st wedding anniversary, Patti and I spent an evening on the balcony of our hotel room sipping Chianti and remembering many of the big events in our marriage and family life. Patti said, “Can you imagine if we knew all that the words “I promise to be…’ implied? Oh my gosh. All that’s happened since that day? I guess that’s why the promises include ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health all the days of my life.’ Catch all. So you really do know you’re in for a lot!” I said, “I guess that’s also why they say that the eighth sacrament is ignorance! If we knew up front all that the other seven sacraments commit us to, we’d probably run! When you’re Catholic, you can’t ever say ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ If it’s a sacrament, it’s the cross, and so you did.”

Then she sang a line from Covenant Hymn (which she also sang at our wedding):

Whatever you dream, I am with you, when stars call your name in the night. Though shadows and mist cloud the future, together we bear there a light. Like Abram and Sarah we stand, with only a promise in hand. But lead where you dream: I will follow. To dream with you is my delight.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, when St. Thomas More’s daughter Margaret was trying to convince him to dissemble and take the Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, he said to her: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” St. Thomas knew baptismal promises bound Him unconditionally to God’s Kingdom, and that these were the ground of every other promise. He said just before he was beheaded, “I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”

When our first child was born, an “old salt” friend who had three sons of his own told me to never make a promise to my children that I couldn’t keep. Small or great. And if you break a promise, he said, make amends and do penance for them to see you take them dead seriously. Penance proportionate to the gravity of the promise. He said, “They need to get from you that they can count on you. Everything else in your life can fall apart, you can lose your job or even, God forbid, your health. Things won’t always go your way. But if you promise them you will always do your best, trust God, love Patti in the worst conditions and put them first over yourself, and then do it, they will see everything is going to be okay. Your promises are your children’s safe zone. Die before you break them.”

[Verse 1]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise

[Verse 2]
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Verse 3]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Outro]
I won’t run away no more, I promise

Love, love, love

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. — Catechism of the Catholic Church

I don’t have much time to seriously write, but I had to share this.

First, tomorrow is the solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. It is a “dogmatic feast,” celebrating the epicenter of Christian faith that was fully disclosed in the mysteries of Holy Week and Easter season. God is three Persons, one God. Three whos and one what, as they used to say in the old catechism. A mystery, meaning not a puzzle to be solved or an illogical assertion to be blindly accepted, but a truth so excessive that the mind is always surpassed when that truth is revealed. Like Niagara Falls. But because we are made in His image, we are able, in an infinite trajectory of growth, to know that mystery. And divine mystery, who God is, can only be made known by God. God must freely choose to make Himself known. Mystery cannot be deduced, only encountered and received. And in the mystery of the Trinity, the Son reveals the Father who sent Him, and the Spirit reveals the Son who sent Him.

Here’s what’s most amazing to me: the concrete circumstances in which God revealed Himself.

The eternal Son of the Father was fully revealed in His death, resurrection and ascension, and the Spirit was made known last Sunday at Pentecost. The mystery of God was disclosed under the form of self-emptying Gift. Divine mystery was made known not as an abstract theorem that we can contemplate and analyze at a safe distance, but was revealed to us fully immersed in the total mess and majesty of human life. In Jesus. In fact, we can say that the pinpoint laser of divine revelation took place in the stripped naked, brutalized, fly-covered body of the eternal Word who, from the cross, spoke to His Father of us and breathed out His Spirit on us as He died.

Faint.

When some asks, “What is God like?”, the Christian points wordlessly to the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) and says, “Like that.” St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, looking at the cross, cried out in prayer: O mes Trois! “O my Three!” See, the Father handing over His Son, and receiving the Son’s self-offering for us through the eternal Spirit. God with us. God for us.

I met a priest very recently, whom I will write more about another time. He graciously gave me permission to share his story that he confided to me. In short, he suffered for several years from a series of terrible illnesses, from which he has now fully recovered. During those years, he said, he passed through what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the spirit.” He said,

During those years as I was physically debilitated, God chose to pass my soul through His love. I don’t know how else to say it. I can testify to you under solemn oath that God is a consuming fire. I know it with absolute certitude. It’s impossible to describe. The love, that is. His love. So selfless. Selfless in a way we cannot even imagine. Honestly. Not even imagine. On the cross He suffered our loveless, wretched, hateful, apathetic, bored, egocentric cruelty with absolute love that caused Him suffering we could never imagine. He showed me just a flicker of the furnace He is, larger than the universe, and asked me to allow Him to transform me to become that flicker. That is the Trinity. The infinite furnace of selfless love. So tender and pure. I can tell you, even though I really can’t because it’s beyond any word, that the Trinity is simply this: total, pure, selfless, infinite loving. A verb of loving, not a noun. Everywhere you go in creation, you can’t escape it. Everything is filled with that love. But because we are petty and small and selfish and consumed with ourselves, we can’t see it or feel it. But if we allow just a flicker of His love to purify this, we would see. You can’t imagine, Tom. We would be happy for every hardship and suffering and challenge of life, because they allow us to become that love even more. I tell my brother priests when they have hard times or illness, this is a gift, let God use it. When God draws you into Himself, it’s total selflessness. Love, love, love. I wish I could put into that word “love” the meaning I experienced in those years. I’m almost afraid to use it for fear of cheapening it. I want to say: No! You don’t understand. You have to know it first hand.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” — 1 Cor 6:19

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Happy Pentecost! A special shout-out to Thom and Heather Jordan on this nearly 20-year anniversary of their Profession of Faith, Confirmation and First Communion, from their sponsors who love them and think they and their family all rock. Isn’t it awesome that our Catholic Church is spread over so much territory? Plenty of breathing room for charity to grow.

Okay…

Today the Paschal Mystery comes to a wrap as the power of the dead and risen Jesus falls down from the Father and explodes in Jerusalem to make the whole cosmos into a City of God.

The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onward. The Holy Spirit with His gifts guides the Church. You cannot understand the Church of Jesus without this Paraclete, whom the Lord sends us for this very reason. And He makes unthinkable possible, the unimaginable imaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates [aggiornamento] the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going. And we Christians must ask the Lord for the grace of docility to the Holy Spirit. Docility in this Spirit, who speaks to us in our heart, who speaks to us in all of life’s circumstances, who speaks to us in the Church’s life, in Christian communities, who is always speaking to us.” — Pope Francis

Back in 1987 I went through a “Life in the Spirit” seminar and was prayed over for an unleashing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was powerful for me at what was really the beginning of my faith journey. I did not experience the gift of tongues or words of knowledge or other charismatic gifts often hailed by both Pentecostals and Catholics in the Charismatic Renewal as premier signs of “baptism in the Spirit.”  What I did experience, though, was a very intense and sustained awareness of what is often called the “indwelling” of the Spirit (cf 1 Cor. 6:19). In fact, I remember when one of the members of the prayer group I had joined quoted St. Augustine, I thought to myself, “That’s exactly  it!” He told me Augustine said, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” [Actually what Augustine really said is even more lovely and poetic in Latin and English: Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, “Higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”]

God is more interior, “closer” to my innermost self precisely because He communicates to my “self” existence at every second. God is “beneath me,” the “ground of my being,” as the Rhineland theologians of the 15th century loved to say. But God is also insanely close to us because He desires to unite Him-self with our-self. Not united at the superficial levels of our consciousness, but at the source, the core, the origin of who “I” am, the personal spring from which my deepest identity emerges. In other words, God wishes to get dangerously close to my heart, to what makes me who I am as an absolutely unique individual person; to the place where I am stripped of all pretense and deception and empty show and defense mechanisms. There, in that most intimate and supremely vulnerable space within me, where I am “naked,” God wishes to gain entry to become one with me, opening His Heart and Person just as unreservedly to me as He asks me to open to Him.

Whoa.

After that personal experience of the Spirit’s indwelling, of a heightened awareness of my body being His temple, I suddenly became more aware of my words and actions as being done in the presence of God. I developed what I might call an acute case of “holy fear of the Lord,” i.e. a tremendous sense of reverence, awe, fear of offending God who dwelt within. Fear of “grieving the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). That holy fear has never left me in 30 years. In fact, my resolution to give up cussing permanently after my initial conversion experience in 1987 was sealed by this new awareness. I had developed a very foul mouth when I was 13 or so, but after my conversion experience I instinctively knew I had to stop though no one had asked me to.

While I am making this point, let me share a very personal grace I received from the Spirit in that regard six years ago. As I have a bad memory these days, so I cannot recall if I have ever shared it here.

Although I had given up cussing in 1987, and was almost 100% effective in keeping my commitment in the subsequent years, inside of me there was a sewer of language that assailed me night and day. All of the memories and habits of a childhood surrounded by cursing, and years of practicing it with abandon, remained in me. It was especially bad when I would pray. But, at the encouragement of my spiritual director, I had long ago accepted it as a lifelong penance for my sins and the sins of others, and I tried to make the best of it.

In 2011 I went to Confession to a priest who was, by chance, also an exorcist. I had never met him before this. I never mentioned to him my inner struggle with vulgarity, but he himself brought it up — which was a bit disconcerting. Just after absolution he put a crucifix on my head and prayed something like this: “Lord, you know your son here has long struggled with the spirit of blasphemy. And he has been faithful. And now you wish to free him from this so he can worship you in purity of mind and heart.” Later that day, I immediately thought of Exodus 7:16.

It was absolutely astonishing, and I could never explain to anyone what happened with adequate clarity. But I can say that from that moment on, till this day, I have never again been assailed in my mind by vulgarity. While I can call to mind curse words at will, they never present themselves to me. I knew immediately, as soon as he finished praying, that it was gone. I told him so, and he said: “The Lord, the Spirit of freedom, wanted you to first struggle all those years to make you ready to receive this grace. Otherwise it would not be your own, be part of you.” He added, “You know that vulgar and blasphemous words, especially the f-word, are the lingua franca of the demons in an exorcism. Just think of the one time you hear of a disciple using curses — St Peter denying Jesus [Matt. 26:74]. A good sign that Christians should avoid them. A salty word is fine to spice things up now and again, but perverse and blasphemous language that offends God and human dignity are not. We live in a very vulgar culture, which is a symptom of spiritual decay. God wishes Christians to be signs of contradiction that remind the world that we will be judged one day by the way we used the gift of language God gave us to resemble His Word. Go in peace, son.”

O Spirit of Freedom, Spirit who makes of my body your temple, come and abide with me forever. Give me the mind and heart of Jesus and make His prayer my own: “Abba! Father!” Amen.

Distracted by Trivia

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“What Aldous Huxley [in Brave New World] teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a voyeuristic vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.” ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (c. 1985)

Last week my iPhone shattered. In an event that appeared to be a sign of providentially ironic divine humor, it happened on the first day of my vacation when I found myself cheating on a commitment I had made not to use my phone for anything other than calling and texting family, and then only in necessity. Literally, as I was sending pictures to someone not in my family (but, come on, it was a funny picture!) my phone fell out of my hands and the screen completely shattered and the screen displayed triple images. After a moment of frustration, I belly laughed for at least a minute. I have been without it since. Glorious.

So all this got me thinking throughout the week. Here’s what I scribbled in my journal. No lightning bolt insights, just my summary of a common conversation.

+ + +

Our culture, which I myself fully inhabit and struggle with, suffers from a deep and tragic addiction to technological superficiality, to being incessantly entertained and stimulated, constantly consuming and not communing with existence. Our attention is short, shallow and fragmented, and so our threshold of patience grows short. We have no more safe zones insulated from the world of endless noise and chatter; or in the words of William James, from the world of “the great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In such a culture things like prayer and inner silence erode, as well as the ability to sit and be with others. To listen closely or to suffer through the human necessity of feeling loneliness or boredom. All of which are part of prayer, part of love.

We stay in touch with everyone at the expense of the few who need and demand our touch the most. Precious time is devoured by trivialities. Watching the endless string of recommended videos on YouTube, we get sucked into a vortex. But we justify it. While on an iPhone we can swipe away or x-out things that fail to give us pleasure or attract our interest, but life is not that way. However, it too easily becomes that way. We check and use our phones compulsively, not freely. When we get a pause, a slack, a lull, a still moment in our day — or a dead silence at night — we feel the addict’s itch to reach for our phone. Dull the dull, anesthetize the pain and feed the screaming appetites we have conjured unwittingly. Since when did these things cross over from wants to needs?

We ceaselessly take pictures of everything to ‘capture the moment,’ to post for others, to get likes, but fail to encounter real life in real time without concern for others’ approval or interest. Reality inverts, as the virtual becomes real and the real becomes virtual. We live life away from home all the time, every conversation we have in person is intruded on by a third party. Life itself becomes tired and insipid, while life through the screen becomes our litmus of interest, our new heroine.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). We Christians must enact a Pentecostal revolt against this zombie culture, this addict’s world. We must become masters of our technologies and not its slaves. Claim back our power of attention, which is our power to love others with attentiveness. We must cultivate an asceticism that ensures our freedom, that constantly critiques our use of social media, iPhones, gaming, all entertainment, and places all of it in service to virtue, to the ability to be present to the present moment, present to the raw, real, uncontrollable, sometimes unpleasant, boring and tedious aspects of life right in front of us — by divine design. We must radically and regularly confess our techno-abuses in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to access its liberating graces. We must show the world what it means to “put out into the deep,” not live as surface-skimming Christian dilettantes. We must be free — slaves to nothing or no one. We must flee escapism. I’ll end with Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words about the spiritual life that apply so powerfully to this topic:

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action in every present moment that comes our way, welcome or unwelcome?

“Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven.” — Henry Ward Beecher

Michael, Nicholas, Maria and Catherine 4 years ago

Maria and Catherine this week

“Children laugh an average of three hundred or more times a day; adults laugh an average of five times a day. We have a lot of catching up to do.” ― Heather King

“The soul is healed by being with children.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A piece of parenting advice my wife and I received nearly 20 years ago from a dear friend went like this: “There is beauty in every age, so appreciate its uniqueness while you’ve got it.” She was responding to my frustration over parents with older children constantly saying to us, “Sure, they’re cute now. But you just wait until they become teenagers! You’ll see.” I swore I would never say that to other parents, and have kept that promise. Having lived through four teenagers, I certainly ‘get’ the challenges that are unique to the teen years. But I can say with our friend these years later: there is indeed beauty in every age.

As we have been spending lots of concentrated time with our daughters this week on our vacation (sadly, our sons had to work), three things have occurred to me in this regard. I’ll speak for myself, though I would guess Patti would echo my thoughts.

First, I enjoy being with our children more than with (save my wife) anyone else. Though we obviously have various conflicts that arise over various things, I never ever tire of being with them, of doing things with them. They have brought unparalleled joy into my life and have made me smile more than any other single thing. There seems to be in that a certain desirable definition of family.

Second, seeing your children develop their own unique personality, gifts and interests is just an astonishing privilege. And seeing them surpass me in so many ways is a thrill I could never have anticipated. You find yourself wanting them to fly higher, run faster, be smarter, love God more than you ever could. And that’s not some saintly selflessness, it’s just the genetic code written into fatherhood and motherhood: “They must increase, we must decrease.”

Third, parenting has the power to carve out a genuine humility in your soul. Wow. Oh my. As my children enter and approach adulthood, I can now assess in hindsight my parenting successes and failures. Dear God. No false humility needed here, as the real thing awaits you in truck loads. Patti says that every night as we kneel at the side of our bed, she prays: “God, please supply for all my failures today, repair any damage I may have caused and use any good I did for their welfare.” Amen. Children pull you out of yourself, call out virtues you did not know even existed, remind you of the virtues you lack, stretch you, pound you, pass you through fire, decimate your sleep, hold a mirror back in your face (yikes!), keep you honest, teach you how to love hard and deep and long. They make you learn to pray again, anew, with them, for them, about them, “out of the depths.” And they plunge your marriage into the refiner’s fire, making you realize you never really knew what it meant to be “one” until they were thrust between you and proceeded to school you in a thousand and one ways to be one.

Patti often says, “On our wedding day we thought we loved each other more than we ever could. We knew nothing!” You ain’t kidding.

I have shared here before that a woman I know with a special needs son (along with her four other children) once said to me, “I never knew how self-centered I was until he was born. And then he, so patiently, taught me to love. If I am ever saved, get to heaven, it will be because he taught me how to get there. How to love.” How clear it is that the more our culture exalts the cult of the self, the less children will be welcome in our world.

Patti has always loved to repeat to people Elizabeth Stone’s quote: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Yes. Exactly. The risk of loving someone you unconditionally invest everything into and then have to unconditionally let go of.

Last night Patti had to return to Metairie for choir practice, so I spent the evening alone with the girls. We played the game Set, listened to music, ate dinner and watched the movie, “What About Bob?” As I sat there with them laughing, I was overcome with deep emotion. Tears streamed down my face with gratitude. How was I chosen by God to raise these children? My sons, my daughters. Our sons, our daughters. His sons, His daughters. If I died at that moment and entered heaven, I would not have noticed the change.

Stay Put

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[Been sitting in my drafts. Yes, still unruly, but it somehow seems timely to launch on this Feast of the Visitation when Mary makes haste through the dangerous hill country of Judea to be of service to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, carrying in her womb the world-consecrating Christ]

I went to a restaurant several summers ago with my wife while we were traveling, and the restaurant owner, who is an eastern European immigrant, came to our table to ask how things were. We told her how much we liked the food and the atmosphere and especially the service. She said, “Good!” And my wife said, “It’s hard to find good service these days, you know?” The floodgates opened and she spoke her mind. I wrote my recollection of it later in my journal:

Yes, Brittany is one of my best. She’s very good and been here for seven years. But you know you’re right it isn’t easy to find good help anymore. I’ve been in this business for many years and can tell you that in the last ten years or so finding good employees gets harder and harder. Makes business harder to run. My experience is few younger people really want to work hard and to pay their dues first, you know what I mean? They’re unreliable, come in late, always want to take time off and don’t have a sense of responsibility, accountability. You know, a sense of commitment to this business. I try to give my employees a sense of ownership. But it’s a revolving door. I try to pay well and be fair and and reward hard work, you know? But if they won’t do the work and stick with it, what can I do? And it’s not like there’s a surplus of jobs.

They show up late day after day and so I have to fire them. They stay out late at night partying and then can’t get up. But the hardest part is so many of them don’t take criticism. They get very offended if you criticize their performance. Come on! So how can you get better? Everything offends them that doesn’t say, “oh you’re awesome,” you know? It’s crazy. Their moms and dads did them a bad deal, I’d say. My mom and dad raised me to be tough and take criticism and work hard and don’t expect anyone to do things for you. They were tough on me because they knew life is tough. Especially for a woman. My dad would say, success is not an accident. And in this economy you can’t survive if you’re half-hearted. But then again without dedicated employees I can’t survive as a business owner. It makes me worry for the future, you know? What will happen? Where will a change come from?

Coincidentally, a few weeks after that conversation I met a young man who came up to speak to me after a talk I gave to a Theology on Tap gathering on “the universal call to holiness.” We ended up staying for over an hour talking. He told me how much my talk spoke to him and to his situation. He then recounted for me a profound experience of Jesus he had at a retreat, after which he became very committed to his Catholic faith. I asked him what he did for a living and said he had worked for the last two and a half years at a local restaurant as a server while he finished his A.A. degree and was hoping to be promoted. I told him how much my wife and I liked that restaurant, but he immediately retorted, “Yeah, sure, the food is good but what happens behind the scenes? It’s bad news.” I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He went on to share some details:

Well, there’s all kinds of crap going on. For example, sexual stuff, like, all the time. The guys watch porn on their phones constantly in the back and then show it around. Even to the girls. And there’s all kinds of sexual relationships, hookups going on all the time. Groping. People constantly talking smack behind other people’s back. It’s just crazy. When I first started I was like, seriously? At a restaurant? You really have to be so strong to resist, though, because it’s in your face all the time. Huge peer pressure. They make it seriously awkward if you refuse the sexual offers.

[I asked him how the managers allow this] Well, the shift managers just turn a blind eye. They know it’s happening but they just want peace. But when the general manager comes everybody acts saintly. And then there’s the super foul language. They’re so polite to customers and then they walk back and their mouth is like a sewer. And they make lewd comments about customers. I mean, I’m not perfect but this is some sick shit. I had no idea a restaurant could be that dysfunctional. I just keep my head down, you know? I mean, I like the work, especially serving the customers. Actually, I would love to be a manager. I know what needs to be done and I could make it better. But right now I just want to get out of there to find a more godly place where I can live my faith radically. I was thinking maybe I could work for God, for the church like you do.

He asked me what I thought. I seized the opportunity. I said:

No! Don’t start at despair and flight. And let’s get this straight — you are working for God. I am working for the institutional church, which means God has called me to be your servant. My ministry is for your mission. I work for the church but you are the church at work. On the streets. Getting employed by the church isn’t any holier, just different. In your work, where you are now, is a whole field of opportunities for greatness. For being radical. You’ve got built into your work a thousand opportunities to exercise hard virtue and to evangelize. If you just surrounded yourself with the like-minded you’ll lose that. I know it’s easier said than done, but where you are now is really where holiness begins and ends for the vast majority of Christians. Out there in the field. Faith with work boots on. Sweaty work.

I told him that this is precisely what my talk was about, was what the church at Vatican II envisioned when it raised up for a new honoring the royal dignity of world-oriented baptismal priesthood. “That’s where Vatican II wanted the epicenter of the new evangelization to be: secular saints.” I added, “Remember what I said, that Baptism and Confirmation set in motion a vocation and a mission to run crazed and headlong out into the midst of the world’s ruins and engage in God’s rebuilding project. THAT is what Catholics mean when they use the word salvation.” He said, “I always thought salvation was of souls.” I said:

Yes, but God doesn’t only want to save your soul, but your body also. And with your body everything you do in the body, which connects you to the whole material world and everyone in it. Even the sewer-mouthed pervs and the nasty gropers. God put you with them for a purpose. Just by being a man of prayer in that restaurant. Just by your refusal to participate in the stuff they do, every day during your shift, makes a huge statement. And your being a normal guy, hard working, honest, and whatever else you bring — people will totally notice. Yeah, some will find it irritating, some won’t care because they’re too self-absorbed to notice. But somebody’s taking note and you never can know what effects God is using you for. You have the best pulpit you could ever get. The only one most of these folks will ever see. A quiet homily.

And remember, the world is only always conquered by Christ one field at a time, one life at a time. But once He gains a field, He’s got a base from which He can launch His revolution. But it takes time. Like a long, gentle and soaking rain.

He reiterated his enthusiasm over being able to assume a greater leadership role at the restaurant, and said that he had gained the respect of many of the employees just because he’s consistent. I continued:

Commitment to this mission from Jesus demands a rugged vision of the lay vocation to be salt, light and leaven in the world. To make the Kingdom of God present and effective. To detonate the J-bomb right where you’re at in the field of battle. Not in the sanctuary but in the field. We need to have a church sanctuary that calls us back in from the battle, to re-arm us, feed us, tend our wounds, help us re-strategize, energize us with pep talks. And where we offer all of the spoils of victory to God. But the laity are commanded at the end of Mass — remember I said that the “Go!” at the end of Mass is an imperative, command verb? — to leave the protected sanctuary and exit into the exposed front lines.

Your restaurant is the perfect arena where your own secular genius can bring about, in ways great and small, a new culture. The same way the Master did, by courageously facing the world with love that’s sometimes stripped naked, beaten, bloodied, spat on, laughed at, rejected, crucified between criminals. And remember Jesus’ initial success stats: only two among all those who surrounded Him on the day of His Passion were converted — the Good Thief and the Centurion. And both were bad dudes before they met Jesus.

Christ-culture, which flows from a splintered Cross and an empty tomb, is not simply about being religious. It includes commitment to hard labor, being a man of your word, being just, fair, chaste, courageous, service-minded, sober, dedicated to excellence in your profession. It includes peace, joy, self-control, generosity. It means being a Christian gentleman. A lost art. All that eloquently proclaims the Gospel of Work and creates a culture that gives Jesus breathing room.

In the early years of Christianity, apologists, who are theologians who defended the faith, would write their defense of Christians to the pagan rulers and would say things like: “Look, Christianity brings all kinds of perks to the Empire. In Christians you have exemplary citizens who live lives of quiet and heroic virtue, who pray for the emperor, who don’t lie or steal or cheat or have sex outside of marriage, who don’t abort their babies, who care for the poor and sick and elderly, who cultivate peace. And all of this is a testimony to the truth of their religion.” Just think if your restaurant was staffed entirely by employees like that — it would make for a more successful business!

That’s the new Kulturkampf the church needs to unleash in society at the end of every Mass: “Go! Be sent! Be cultural revolutionaries, all of you!” The church calls this mission “consecrating the world to God.” To consecrate means to re-claim something for God’s purposes, to make the world the way God wants it to be. Consecrating finds its most perfect expression in the Holy Eucharist. You know, when the bread and wine are consecrated they belong to Jesus entirely, absolutely. But even more specific, in the Eucharistic consecration the Son of God makes Himself claims the bread and wine for His own in a very specific mode: they are His at the moment He hands over His Body to be broken by us and as He sheds His Blood for us. In other words, consecration is joining Jesus as He labors to love and redeem a corrupt, depraved, vicious, ungrateful and perverse rabble, making of that rabble a holy communion.

So let me just say that before you settle on leaving, be sure you first embrace this truth of your faith. Make sense? Look, God has entrusted you with the work of tending a small plot of His Vineyard on 2254 State Street, for 40 hours each week. He’s hoping you can make it bear some good fruit for Him. It’s a vineyard, which means tilling hard soil, clearing stones, digging furrows, planting seeds, praying for rain, hedging, training, pruning, fertilizing. So it’s brutally hard work in the blistering sun. But this is your glory as a layman, the moment of your greatness, the Colosseum of your martyrdom, the way in which Christ continues His conquest of the world from the Cross. Man, you get to bring into that godless space God. Is that amazing? And if we take the Bible seriously, right, it seems God seriously enjoys getting invitations to dine in a den of sin and raise holy hell. [laughs]

All that said, you will absolutely need to find a community of faith for support and encouragement in your parish, or wherever, as a base for your mission. You said have a passion to move up to management, right? And, although it will never be easy or perfect, just think of the influence you could have there. I suspect there’s a calling in that desire. As they say, “If not now, when? If not you, who? If not there, where?” The church needs passionately faith-filled people like you to stay in the world and not just drain out into ministry. I love ministry, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, not for most. The world doesn’t need a brain drain of Christ’s mind. First bloom where you’re planted, and then you can discern God’s will.

My advice in sum? Pray in place and stay put. Just see what happens, what fruits come.

He seemed very enthusiastic and encouraged as we finished our conversation and he gave me his email address and said he wanted to meet again. We did. I gave him the name of a priest I knew would support him and asked him, as is my custom, if he minded my sharing the outlines of his story to benefit others. He said that was fine as long as I kept it anonymous. I wrote him an email the next day and ended with a quote from St. John Paul II:

In particular, two temptations can be cited which [the laity] have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.

I also included the Twenty One Pilots song, Not Today, which colorfully captures the struggle we have with God (“You”) when we sense He is calling us out of our comfort zone and asking us to stop hiding from our mission to transform the world. I’m glad TØP said yes to that mission!

Every Catholic family, and every Catholic institution responsible for forming young men and women should have this burning at the core of its mission: to cultivate faithful and engaged citizens capable of becoming passionate Christophers in the world, carrying Christ into culture, politics, business, economics, science, sales, you name it. Once planted there in the public square, Christ, like King Midas, can refine the world’s alloy into the purest of gold by His incarnate touch. And we are His incarnate touch.

That is where change will come from.

Fr. Humanity

Fr. John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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