Dads

My work continues to outpace my free time to write here, but today I had to honor fathers.

In 1993, I heard a Vigil Mass homily on Trinity Sunday at St. Joseph’s Trappist Abbey that included a remarkable insight. Here’s what I wrote in my pocket notebook:

In God, the mystery of the Father is singular. What is He like? He is the Origin and source of absolutely everything. The Creed says creation was uniquely His work, or you might say, His idea and initiative. The Creed even tells us that the Father is the source-less Source of divinity, who eternally begets the Son and breathes forth the Spirit.

The Father is, simply put, an uncreated and infinitely pure act of generosity in a total and inconceivable way. His nature is complete self-wasting giving away without necessity or incentive or self-interest or beginning. In a totally singular way, the Father is pure love without a why.

When the Son and Spirit came into the world, sent by the Father for us, it seems all they want to do is speak of the Father. The Father! The Father! They seem like small children running everywhere to share their overflowing wonder and gratitude and joy that He IS, and that they ARE because of Him.

And they both call Him — and want us to call Him — by that tender Aramaic name, “Abba!” [Rom. 8:15; Mark 14:36].

In fact, as I prayed on this mystery over the week, it occurred to me that Jesus’ whole human life, but above all His crucifixion and death and resurrection, seems to be the Son and Spirit’s way of trying to demonstrate, prove, show to us, in the most extreme way imaginable, just how extraordinary and immeasurable and infinitely extreme the eternal Father’s love is.

And Jesus established the Eucharist as the way we can join Him in forever thanking the Father for being love, and join the Son and Spirit in Their demonstration of this truth for the whole world to see.

The Son loves out of the abundance of the Father’s love, and the Spirit is the outpouring of the Father’s love. But the Father? 1 John 4:8 captures it: “God IS love.”

In every father, spiritual, adoptive and biological, the Face of that Father is to be found, etched, radiantly present. By the power of the Spirit and the Heart of the Son, may it be so for all of us privileged to be called ‘father.’

Okay, where did He go??

The Ascension of Jesus to the Father, forty days after the resurrection, is often lost on the Christian imagination. What exactly is it? Is it a mere dramatic exit from the stage of history for Jesus, who leaves us behind to now get our sea legs and fend for ourselves? Or is it Jesus’ escape from this world to go prepare a better place for us, so we too can also one day finally escape to heaven?

No!

The Ascension is the definitive rescue of creation from sin, corruption and death. The Ascension is the return of all creation, by Christ’s priestly humanity, to the Father as an ongoing event of liberation, thanksgiving and joy. The Ascension means that the human heart of God now forever beats in the eternity of the Trinity! In fact, countless human hearts now ever beat there, since Christ in the Ascension brings back to the Father something He did not have when He first “came down from heaven” — our humanity. Christ brings us back with Him as members of His risen Body.

The Ascension brings all history to its final End. You see, in Scripture the drama of history can be summed up very simply: all things come from God, and all things will return to God. Like it or not, believe it or not, this is an inexorable law.

But here’s a key point: God created us in His image to be the hinge, the point of return on which history pivots God’s gift of creation back toward Him as a grateful return. This is the deepest meaning of the priestly nature of humanity. I might say more specifically, our freedom is the real priestly hinge, the pivot (Heb. 10:5-10). And we are allowed by God’s majestic gift of freedom to either say Yes or No. Tragically, the Original depraved ingratitude of our No — of sin — crippled our freedom, unhinged the hinge, tilted the pivot off center, and plunged creation headlong into death by means of our stillborn priesthood.

But God, over-filled with compassion, became Man to rescue us, to empower us and to restore us with us! By becoming Man, by living, dying, rising as a Yes (2 Cor. 1:19), and establishing the Eucharistic Sacrifice as the new Hinge, new Pivot and everlasting Vocation of humanity, Christ reconstituted and perfected our priestly calling (John 19:30).

Then, by Ascending to the Father as the event of Final Return, and sending to us His fiery Spirit at Pentecost, Christ opened up His Priesthood — our priesthood — empowering us to co-fulfill this titanic Vocation with Him. Hallelujah!!!

When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what is man that you should keep him in mind,
mortal man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god;
with glory and honor you crowned him,
gave him power over the works of your hands,
put all things under his feet. – Psalm 8:4-7

The Church, Christ’s Body, has been called and empowered at every moment to be uplifting, raising, dragging, offering Upward all of creation back to the Father through, with and in Christ in an ongoing Ascending rescue mission of Return (Phil. 3:14).

My God, it’s going on right now as you read. Can you feel it quaking in you?

But how can one see signs of that liberating, compassionate Ascension empowering humanity to say Yes and embrace her priesthood again? See Church….

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…

Creation playing to an empty house: Never!

Photo my wife took while I was watching the sunset

We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house. — Annie Dillard

Not unlike many people who were children before the age of smartphones, my very first memories are connected with noticing things in nature that seemed to the adults around me hidden or unimportant — things like ants, bees, spiders, mites, butterfly eggs, tadpoles, damselflies, or the wildly complex ecosystems hidden under rocks and logs. My dad used to love to remind me that, when I was two or three years old, I would spend countless hours sitting beside ant mounds, transfixed in rapt silence. I do remember vividly, in fact, how I took the greatest pleasure in noticing the work each ant did in the colony, excavating grains of sand, dragging in freshly killed insects, or guarding the mound entrance from intruders.

I had (and retain) a deep seated drive to discover and rejoice in things that, I imagined, no one would ever notice if I didn’t. In each moment, it always seemed to me, there were a thousand million things around to notice, each more fascinating than the other. Never to pass this away ever again. So, until I lost this awareness in my teens, I never ever once remember being bored.

I also recall as a child hearing Matthew 10:29 read aloud at Mass, and thinking: that is my place in the world, my place with God.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

May I be never apart from the God notices, too. The God who notices, and who loves.

For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,
for your imperishable Spirit is in all things! — Wisdom 11:24-12:1

Yesterday I was out at the beach with my family, and I waded out a few hundred yards into the shallow Gulf waters. In the silence of that vast space, I was unexpectedly overcome by prayer. More specifically, I was overwhelmed by an intense awareness that, as a priest of nature and of grace, it was my dignified office in that moment to look at creation with God’s delight and joy, and give voice to creation’s grateful delight and joy in God. Created God’s image, humanity alone on earth can offer logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Rom. 21:1) to God on behalf of every non-rational creature. We alone can say to the Father, “Thank you for calling us from non-existence into being!”

Like a crazy man I shouted into the sky, over the waters — with fish literally jumping out of the water all around me! — a line from the Catechism (#1047) that I have memorized because of its mind-blowing beauty:

The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

Surrounded by a horizon-less sea, I sensed so clearly that all is sheer gift, none of it is my possession. The universe, my body and soul, my family on the beach. All of it must be (and will be!) returned to God. But my calling is to do that in an act of absolute submission, with thanksgiving and praise, in trust, out of a non-possessive humility that acknowledges in every moment: existence is never deserved, only to be gratefully received and gratefully returned.

Only in returning all, letting go in a quite absolute way, can I receive all back. For only then is all no longer a possession, but all is gift.

I saw a dead horseshoe crab floating by me, and thought:

Death opens out into life only when it is offered Up in an act of grateful return, of non-possessive surrender to the Father from whom all blessings flow. This is what makes the death of Christ the consummate act of creation. His death on the cross is the only final and perfect return of all to the Father. And the Resurrection is the Father’s response to Christ’s priestly return. This is why the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the fulcrum for our priestly service to all creation through, with and in Him.

So please, please, never be bored! For around you is a world that did not have to be, but is. A world that awaits your noticing, your rapt attention, your lifted voice, your bodily offering in creation’s name to its Maker, singing a new song of praise and blessing, of thanksgiving and joyful worship.

Look around you! The world is ablaze in divine fire! You only need stop, be silent, and notice that you are being Noticed.

Pope Francis gets all this so well:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.

Willing to say more than we can be

As theologians, we must say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not write to justify the limits of our lives. — Stanley Hauerwas

Last Fall, I once told my students in a class I taught on prayer, “This class terrifies me, because I resemble little of it but aspire to all of it.”

This is the terrible beauty of teaching, writing and witnessing to our Faith: even as we give voice to its grand vision of life’s meaning and purpose, we find ourselves simultaneously judged before its impossibly high standards and lifted up by its exalted vision of who God wills us to be. Faith exposes us as both frauds and exemplars, as simul justus et peccator, “at once justified and a sinner.” St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations, expressed this tension wonderfully:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

One of my sons said to me recently, after we had spent over an hour talking about the heroism required to live Catholic sexual ethics in our culture, “Dad, is there anything the church teaches that you just don’t buy?” What an excellent and poignant question! It took us another hour to unpack. Though he and I have had many conversations about the reasonableness faith over the years, this was the most direct and personal question he had ever asked.

My answer was predictably a “yes and no,” with a mix of raw honesty and attempted nuance. We talked about squaring the depravity of clerical scandals with authoritative moral teaching, and then I shared my version of the Catholic “take” on the dialectics of faith and doubt, assent and dissent, as well as Catholicism’s use of philosophy as a way to submit faith’s claims to hard rational inquiry. We also talked about the role of prayer in exploring these questions. I said,

You can’t think your way into faith. Just as science demands observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses in its empirical method, so faith demands a willingness to engage in a “contemplative method” that’s open to God acting directly in the mind and opening it to His mystery.

[He asked, “Why?”] Because faith, even though it’s open to reason’s hardest questions, is in the end a gift that God must give — because faith admits you into the deepest mystery of God, which is beyond all empirical scrutiny. Augustine says, “I believe so that I may understand.” Faith as a relationship requires an act of trust in the other first. Only with trust can you be granted access to the other person’s inner mystery, and prayer is access granted.

What made the conversation both terrifying and exhilarating for me was that it was my son who asked this. I had spent the previous 21 years, with my wife and many others, trying to create an environment in which he — and our other children — could experience the color, texture, sound, smell and taste of a world informed by faith. A space where his emotions, imagination, intellect and freedom could grow into a free assent to Jesus Christ as the definitive meaning of all existence.

But now my son was, in effect, asking me: “Okay so, this world you created for me — Do you really believe it yourself? Do you ever doubt it? How do you reconcile it with the many other worlds out there?” We had taught our children that faith is to be fearless, that truth is one, and that the same God authored the mind and faith. So this conversation was exactly what I had always hoped for. And it was scary as hell, because it forced me to look through his eyes at the “I” that claims to boldly profess, “I believe in…”

I also realized in our conversation that such an honest exchange, such a vulnerable exchange, signaled another transition I had long hoped for: from father-son to brothers, from leader-led to companions on the journey of life, from guardian-guarded to friends (John 15:15). The same child who had long ago “ripped fatherhood out of me,” who taught me how to love in a way I could never known without him, had also ripped faith out of me and taught me to believe in a way I could never have known without him. His very existence — his face, his questions, his trust, his innocence, his doubts, his struggles, his sufferings — is the voice of Jesus asking me in every moment: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me?” “Who do you say that I am?”

And a little child shall lead them — Isaiah 11:6

{This final story I will share is shared with permission}

Years ago, when we lived in Brandon, Florida, a man joined the RCIA program I was in charge of at the time. He was married with three children, was baptized Catholic, but was not raised in the faith. When he explained to me why he wanted to return to his faith, he said, “My daughter is about to receive her first holy Communion, and when she asks why I don’t go to church, I really don’t know what to say.” He went on to say, “But just last week, she asked me with the most sincere expression, ‘Daddy, do you love Jesus?’ I was frozen and just left the room. I told my wife later, I need to give her what she wants from me. And so that’s why I am here. I want to have faith for her.”

Just before his first Confession, he met with me to discuss his journey of faith over the last 8 months. Among many things, he said, “The best part has been that I came in to find faith for my daughter, but now found it for myself.”

As parents — like all Christians who risk giving public witness to personal faith — we must always be willing to say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not simply live so as to justify the limits of our lives.

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]