This semester has proved to be challenging meeting various obligations and trying to maintain this Blog. A good busy, as they say.

So I will put my writing here on hold for a stretch as I anticipate more of the same to the end in December, weekends included. So until at least Thanksgiving, I will not be posting.

May the Lord bless you super-abundantly in all ways, in the meantime. I’ll leave an old reflection below Sound of Silence for your reflection, if you wish…


[re-post from 2014]

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not. — St Silouan the Athonite

I met with a young man earlier this year to discuss some faith struggles he was facing. I will call him Eric here, and he gave me permission to share this story.

Eric had been brought up in a broken home, and had been physically and psychologically abused by his step-father. After getting out of high school, he got a job and quickly got caught up in drug and alcohol abuse and in the hook-up culture. But after going on an ACTS retreat, and having a life-altering encounter with Christ, he radically altered his lifestyle and moved to another state to start his life afresh. Eventually, after a few years, he decided to become a priest.

While he was in a parish assignment his third year of college seminary, he discovered the pastor was engaged in some seriously nefarious activity, which shook him to the core. As this dredged painful memories and overwhelming anger, he said he did not have the inner resources to confront the pastor or face his vocation director, so he simply disappeared and left the seminary and stopped practicing his faith altogether. Though he never lost his faith.

I met him by chance one day and when he found out I worked for a seminary, he wanted to talk to me. Our several sessions were painful and fruitful, and he eventually decided to return to the sacraments and give the church a try again. It was a miracle of grace and a testament to his own resilience.

At the heart of our conversations was the question of why Jesus chooses to include messed up people in His Church. Especially in leadership positions. I remember the day when he said, “I hate that life is so messy in general. I guess the bottom line is, what other choice does God have, right? I mean, I’m messed up, everyone I know is somehow messed up.” We talked about human institutional dysfunction as a permanent state of affairs that requires incessant reform, and shared ideas on possible remedies. Then I said,

But bottom line is it’s only faith in Jesus that gives us hope beyond the limits of history and keeps us from hopeless pessimism. And really, if we look at Jesus as the way things work for God, it’s actually when things are worst that it’s clearest He’s getting down to business and dealing with the problem at hand. Bringing the hidden toxins to the surface. In the Passion, evil was totally spiraling out of control and put Jesus in its cross-hairs. And when evil had done its worst by dragging Him into hell, it was then that He blew it open from the inside out and launched a new creation.

So hope is found only in collaborating with God’s project of new creation, which He makes out of the scraps of human rubble.

You know, St. John of the Cross in the Dark Night says that just before you get to the brightest light of union with God, you stare into hell’s darkest eye. And then what you discover when you get there is that the darkness is really in you. So dealing with the problems of the church or world, whatever they are, really means dealing with your problem, the only one you have a final say over.

My first spiritual director told me that a warning sign that I have become unhealthily preoccupied with others’ failings and faults, have lost perspective, is when I pray less and less. In other words, when I lose hope in the God-project of new creation and progressively withdraw into myself. Of course, what that leaves me with is the exact same mess, but now without hope or joy.

There’s this Orthodox saint, St. Isaac the Syrian, who says that once you let God’s mercy REALLY deal with your own crap, you then become the most merciful person in the whole world and see things the way God does. Which is the final goal. He has this quote that’s killer on that point.

I later emailed him the St. Isaac quote:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

I ended my email to Eric with the Silouan quote, and added, “If you choose to dive into Jesus all the way, wholeheartedly, you’ve gotta be ready to go deep into the thick of it all with Him. I mean, that’s where He’s always heading, to where it’s worst. The key is to stick with Him and never go it alone. Go it alone, you’ve lost everything. Go it with Him, you’ll find everything.”

Bloom where you’re planted

St Theophane

May the Lord give you the blessing
of a strong desire to stand inwardly before God.
Seek and you will find.
Seek God: such is the unalterable rule for all spiritual advancement.
Nothing comes without work.
The help of God is always ready and always near,
but is only given to those who seek and work,
and only to those seekers who, after putting all their own powers to the test,
then cry out with all their heart: Lord, help us!
So long as you hold on the Lord does not interfere.
It is as though He says:
“You hope to succeed by yourself –
Very well, go on trying!
But however long you try you will achieve nothing.”
May the Lord give you a contrite spirit,
a humble and a contrite heart. — Theophane the Recluse

The one time I did an eight day Ignatian silent retreat, I had a spiritual director guide me who had over fifty years of experience counseling people in the spiritual life. He was all at once gentle and brutal — gentle in delivery, brutal in accuracy. I filled an entire journal with insights from those days.

There were two wrap-up insights he shared the final day of the retreat that remain as poignant today as they were then. The first went like this,

You have two choices whenever you find yourself faced with a difficult trial in life. Either discover in it a cross given you as a path to sanctity or find a way to move on.

Then he read to me 1 Cor. 10:13, adding,

But always remember, everywhere you go the cross awaits. Have no illusions. And, Tom, do not fall into the rut of constant complaining, of second guessing everything, or wishing things were different by saying, “If only…I would be what God wants!” These keep you from embracing God’s will and get you stuck in a spiritual adolescence.

The second insight was the quote above from the Eastern Orthodox spiritual writer, St. Theophane. My director commented,

Bring everything to God in prayer. Pray as if everything depended on His grace. It does. Whenever you travel to a new place during the day — if you go home, to work, to shop or visit a friend or family or church — beg the Holy Spirit to precede you, to go ahead of you and prepare the way ahead of you. If you are tempted to complain, call on the Spirit. On the Mother of God. Your Guardian Angel.

But if you choose self-reliance as your way of dealing with life, and withhold from God your full Yes, God will absolutely respect that and leave you to yourself to face things on your own, until you see how far you get.

He paused for a moment and, looking at me with a smile, took my hand and said, “And you see where that’s gotten you?” We had a hearty laugh.

Show me the Father

Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring … We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. — Pope Francis

[when I read this quote, it reminded me of a post I had written in 2014…so here it is again]

Quite a number of years ago, my wife and I were friendly with a woman who worked in business with her husband and was (at the time) a mother of two small children. She was smart, was a “mover and a shaker” and had a quick and sarcastic wit. Both she and her husband were very devoted to their Catholic faith and were involved in various parish activities. For all appearances, they were the model thriving family.

The rest of what I share is with permission.

One day the husband asked me if I would meet him for lunch, and after three hours of conversation I understood why. Their marriage was in crisis, and from his perspective it was largely because she was strangling him, and their children, with her relentless and unattainable expectations. He said, “She criticizes everything I do and it’s driving me insane. And it’s making the kids resent her. But I know it’s not her fault. She’s just passing on what she received.”

He went on to tell me she had grown up in a hyper-critical home, with a father who was demanding, never affectionate and who never made her feel she measured up to his expectations. Her mother was passive and never stood up to him to protect her little girl. Then, with copious tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Look, she hates herself and I can’t help her anymore. I have tried to help her love herself, but I’ve reached my limits. I’m done.”

They ended up going to counseling, and made enormous progress. After about six months had passed since the lunch, the woman emailed me a very lengthy note expressing her own feelings of anger and hatred toward God. She said, “I can’t get over the sense that God is far away really and never quite happy with me because I never measure up to his demands. To think of God as a father and me as his daughter is totally suffocating … counseling has made me want to stop living a facade of perfection in my life. But now I’m scared because part of that includes my faith in God which has been a total facade.”

As I do so often with people who ask me to help them grow in their relationship with God, I encouraged her make space for silent prayer in her life. I recommended she try to go to Eucharistic Adoration once a week for an hour, sit quietly in front of Jesus and very simply share all the contents of her heart. Among other things, I said,

When you sit in prayer with Jesus, keep still and just look at Him. Allow whatever is deep inside of you to surface. Don’t run away from whatever agitation rises up in the quiet. Let it burn through you and then speak to Him about it. Give permission to Jesus to enter into your heart freely and surprise you. Say over and over, “Show me the Father.” That is Jesus’ entire mission, so see what He has to say …

A few weeks later, I received a handwritten thank you note from the woman. In it, she said,

… I just had to share this with you. After a few tries in the Chapel taking your advice (which was hard as hell by the way), one night I experienced for the first time in my entire life the feeling of being washed with unconditional love from God the Father. You know what a big deal that is. I was a total wreck and it’s all your fault! 🙂 But here’s the million dollar insight I got — I can only love myself when I know I’m loved like that by somebody who knows me through and through and not just the fake me that was most of my life …

I’m sure you know from your wife that a woman just wants to be noticed … That’s totally what I knew that night. God noticed everything inside of me. All the crap especially. But here’s the new part: that’s what he loved. The crap! Not just the “perfect” parts of me which were the only parts I ever felt were lovable. Excuse my French, but that’s just f-ing wild …

Consecrate Me a Boat?

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their labor through the days of life that God gives them. — Pope Francis

I was shocked to read this. Such a shallow vision of life! Imagine living life this way. What a pagan mindset, appreciating the good things of this world as if they were comparable to a life lived in the light of an otherworldly eternity. How could a pope have succumbed to the hedonism of secular humanism? We should deny ourselves of all worldly pleasures for God and seek spiritual realities and their supernal beauty! What are we coming to?

So earthly minded, our pontiff is of no heavenly good. Where is my pale faced Christian saint who’s left behind the tainted pleasures of this world?!

Well, actually, this quote is from Sacred Scripture, from Ecclesiastes 8:15. Pope Francis quoted it once in a speech, so I took it out of context to make a point. The inspired book of Ecclesiastes, which you might say is the Old Testament Gospel of This-world Realism, assumes the existence of no afterlife, and so forcefully counsels that the elusive human quest for happiness be vigorously sought in this life whenever opportunity presents itself.

I am grateful Ecclesiastes was kept in the Canon of Scripture as a corrective to exaggerated hyper-spiritualized forms of other-worldliness that can easily spring from a Christian hope in an eternal life (wrongly) divorced from this world. As I say so often, the Christian vision of the New Creation is a vision of this creation saved, redeemed, perfected, re-created by God through Christ.

Our calling as Christ’s Body is to love this world — our common home — as God loves it, to cultivate the world as God’s garden, to transform earth into an offering to the God who first entrusted it to us. That offering, carried by the faithful to Mass each Sunday, has the most mind-blowing destiny. Our Catechism #1047 eloquently expresses it:

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.

The entire visible universe. 💥

But how do we, “the just,” know what it means to engage in this celestial transaction for glorification in the risen Jesus? Who can teach us this superhuman art form? Well, Jesus, the “glutton and drunkard” who dines with sinners (Luke 7:34), the mixer of one-hundred thirty five gallons of spiced wine (John 2:6f), the bread and fish mass-distribution Maker (Matt. 14:19), the breakfast Chef (John 21:12), the Bridegroom who has come to inaugurate an eternal wedding feast, the dancing Son (Luke 15:25), the new Adam who brings creation to completion by loving the world to the end.

In fact, Jesus’ final words on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), declare God’s “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) work of creation now complete in an act of divine and human selfless sacrificial love. Now the Church, Christ’s Fire-breathing Body in the world, remains to carry our His act of love to the very end of time so that every quark of this cosmos can be saved.

This is really the art of the laity, of us baptized royal priests who are heaven’s secular world-loving missionaries. For us, as Vatican II put it, “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in [our] hearts.” Saintly laity are so earthly minded they are of supreme heavenly good.

Now, as we have had millennia of magnificent canonized saints whose vocation was to renounce earthly goods to lift humanity’s eyes upward toward heaven’s future hope, it’s time for us to long now for a new millennium overflowing with canonized saints whose vocation is to rejoice in earthly goods, drawing heaven downward to consecrate earth.

So next time you find opportunity to love the world, first call down the Heavenly Spirit to consecrate your earth, or your boat…

…as many a truth is spoke in jest, maybe eliminating such false heaven-earth oppositions by teaching us laity how to rightly love this world might eliminate some of our knee-jerk rebellion against what we see as a world-degrading heaven…

For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. Together with the offering of the Lord’s Body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God. – Lumen Gentium

Praying when you can’t

I am teaching a class on prayer this semester, and like my classes on marriage and on the problem of evil, it has been super transformative for me. Preparing the class lectures is like jumping off a high cliff into an unknown depth, as I uncover insights that are genuinely new and dazzling. But because of the pace of the semester, I have little time to really process these insights and mostly have to leave them behind in my notes for another day.

This morning I rose early to review my notes on prayer and, well, to pray them through. The topic was “what to do when you can’t pray.” For example, when you are in great pain or under immense stress, or after you have committed evil and are suffering the aftershocks that paralyze your inner world. Or maybe when you are experiencing the oppressive weight of depression and have lost all desire for anything.

As I reflected on this topic in my prayer, I asked Christ: when did you experience the inability to pray? It was certainly intended as a rhetorical question, since I don’t sit in expectation of immediate responses. But as I sat with this question stirring in me, an image blossomed in my mind: Jesus’ final moment of life in Mark 15:37:

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

Phōnēn megalēn, “a great scream.” He could not pray with words, could no longer formulate intelligible sentiments. How can you when you’re violently shaking in the final agony of the death rattle? Then the thought came to me, “In those moments, He absorbed into Himself every human being’s inability to pray and, as God, consecrated it.”

Consecrated it. I wondered what that looked like.

Then I flashed back in my memory to the summer of 1993 when I was hospitalized for crippling anxiety attacks. I was coming apart. Dissolving, fragmenting. And I could not pray, or even think of God. In fact, the thought of God was like a knife, the thought of a “loving God” like a sick mocking of my madness.

I then recalled how, in a very dark moment, I had cried out from my bed with tremendous force — audibly — “Damn you! If you want me to give myself to you, I have to have a self left to give!”

I don’t really know why I said those words, but I realized I had prayed. Yelled. And those words somehow had captured my deepest fear. In the moments following, I recall vividly being washed over by a sense of awe, a presence in the room that exuded compassion. Pure compassion. And in that moment, I was filled with the grace of acceptance — I could accept remaining in this state. Up to then, I only wished to flee. That was beyond anything I could have ever imagined doing, to find this strange sense of order in the chaos. It sounds even now like a hapless contradiction.

This morning, I also sensed the depth of what Jesus took on in that “scream.” He entered our abyss. He suffered my screams of terror as His own and exchanged them for His inconceivably loving presence. Thought of it caused me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases — Isaiah 53:4

The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me, Paul says in Galatians 2:20. For me. Entering into that exchange by simply permitting Him to take my diseases is itself prayer, an act of will allowing Jesus to assume my paralysis, burdens, pains, sorrows and make mine ours. So He can consecrate them. What He does with them then, well that’s His business…

I don’t know how to articulate this consecration at all well. As close as I get: Jesus.

My Blood

Last night we had a dear friend over for dinner. He made dinner for us. Served us. What a gift that is, such a humbling gesture of generosity. The simple joys of life and friendship are what give life a soul.

Over dinner, our son Nick, who is getting his B.S. in physics, was sharing insights into the wave-particle theory of light he was learning about in his Quantum Theory class. Absolutely fascinating, though 95% of it was likely out of my field of vision. After dinner, we treated our guest to some of the music from Twenty One Pilots’ new album, Trench. Among other songs, we watched TOP’s music video My Blood. It’s a stunning story-song about a child who had to develop ways to cope with his life’s hardships…

As the evening wore on, Maria and Ashley practiced some music with my wife, Michael came home from a day at the beach with his girlfriend, and Catherine came home from her play practice and we studied for a Religion test. My my, I work mightily to drink in the beauty of these days of our life as a family, as I know they will soon pass away, as they all must. Into something new.

Though passing, they live on alive in my memory, especially at night.

…I went to bed, praying in thanksgiving for these graces. Too many to count. In the middle of the night I awoke to a flooding downpour. I love a rainy night. As I watched it fall powerfully in the absolutely still air, with a steady roar, I remembered some painful and frightening scenes from my childhood. Not certain why. Maybe the video of My Blood had filled my mind. I recalled my “older brother” who had shielded me from some of the harder blows life had for me. An elusive friend, a nearby brother.

I could see dimly in these moments of pouring remembrance what I had not imagined before: a child searching about in Christ-haunted shadows.

My Brother, with me. Now I see.

Yet I did not know Him, with me. Do we really ever? Only in memory of. Especially those endless hours I spent alone out in the deep woods.

Jesus said: “Split wood, I am there.
Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” — Gospel of Thomas saying 77b.

Deo gratias.

Marriage: The Real Presence

Today’s our 23rd wedding anniversary. ❤ ∞

In the absence of time to write, I will post a reflection I wrote long ago, but never posted. Really, it only repeats what I have tried to say in a thousand ways here.

+ + +

I’m searching for a sign,
been looking way too high.
Heart in the trenches,
head in the heavens — BØRNS

Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect — Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes

In Judaism and Christianity, one thing is exceedingly clear: God wishes to be loved principally in and through the neighbor. Period.

God sealed this by Himself becoming human, thereby making it, in a quite literal sense, impossible to love Him except in and though — and never apart from — human beings. And so the God-Man says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This means that the Christian never seek fulfillment in “God alone.” To enter into the “union of love” with God is, of necessity, to enter into union of love with humanity, i.e. with the real people around you. Especially the ones hardest to love.

This is precisely the meaning of 1 John 4:20:

If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

Marriage is the most extreme and radical form of neighbor-love in all of creation, as you promise the entirety of yourself to one human being, pledging on your wedding day to set out on a journey to become one body-mind-spirit with your spouse. Pope Benedict affirmed that “marriage is a union for the whole of life, until the man and woman become one spirit as well.” From a biblical perspective, that affirmation is breathtaking. The spirit is the deepest depth of the human person, our capacity for union with the infinite God — “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17).

And so I am invited to share with my wife my most intimate union with God in the depths of my spirit. For Patti, I renounce all “private property,” from my body (1 Cor. 7:4) down even into the spaces of my secret depths, my spirit. I am not my own. My very union with God is hers, and hers is mine (1 Cor. 7:14).

“What God has joined man must not divide” (Mark 10:9) refers not just to a contractual agreement to remain together as a couple for a whole lifetime. It is a covenant “yes” to Christ, whose Spirit desires to be the bonding force of our one flesh, one mind, one heart and one spirit. The “joining” is not just of the spouses to each other, but of both to God.

Which is why we chose John 17:21-27 as our nuptial Mass Gospel:

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,
may they also be in us,
so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The glory that you have given me I have given them,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may become completely one,
so that the world may know
that you have sent me and have loved them
even as you have loved me.

To me, though, what is most magnificent of all is that this high vocation to such a mind-bending depth of mystical marital unity is not some sweet and sappy pious fantasy for the very few couples who get along famously or spend their date nights at Holy Hours. No! It’s for any couple, or even any one spouse, willing to daily hand over to Christ the indestructible resolve to love through all of the joys and heartaches, dances and arguments, ecstasies and agonies; the fun, funny, irritating, drab, dreary, dreamy, energizing, exhausting moments that pulse at the heart of real marriage and real family. That’s the stuff of real union.

Why? Because Christ’s journey to the union of love with His spouse — the human race — was marked by joys and heartaches, dances and arguments, ecstasies and agonies; the fun, funny, irritating, drab, dreary, dreamy, energizing, exhausting moments. Because of this — what a relief! — Patti and my marriage-family potpourri gets caught up into divine love — paschal love — and serves as our royal road to union with God.

Wherever the Real Presence is, there is reality, redeemed.