“Well done,” laity at Calvary

{I will likely pause for posting for a few days — hopefully resuming next weekend.}

[Here is a sprawling journal entry I wrote late one night last weekend]

The path of the lay faithful [since Vatican II] has not been without its difficulties and dangers. 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. — St. John Paul II

This last week a friend of mine, who had gone to the “New York Encounter” (an annual three-day public cultural event in the heart of New York City, offering opportunities for education, dialogue, and friendship inspired by the work of Father Luigi Giussani), shared with me a video of an interview at the event with Dr. Michael J. Brescia, co-founder and executive medical director of Calvary Hospital in New York City.

Wow.

I used it in class last week at the seminary. We were discussing the ways in which the laity exercise their baptismal sharing in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly offices by carrying out their core mission of consecrating the world to God in a secular key. We discussed the above quote from St. John Paul II, focusing on some of the odder effects of modernity’s sharp separation of faith and life. While for many people of nominal faith it means assimilation, subordinating faith to dominant cultural values, for devout Christians the “split” becomes a deep ambivalence, or even antipathy, toward robust engagement in the temporal/worldly/secular dimensions of life. The latter is, to me, the saddest, as it is devout men and women who should be running into the midst of the world to season it with salty faith.

A young man who came to speak with me last year told me that the spirituality he had been formed in while serving in a popular campus ministry movement had made him lose his lifelong passion to be [an architect], because “it suddenly seemed so worldly and not compatible with a serious prayer life and being radical in my faith. Not being in church work just feels like I’m settling for sub-par holiness.” Two hours later, I finally stopped talking.

Vatican II captured succinctly this grave problem,

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. They are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.

The late Francis Cardinal George also made this point, when he said in a lecture on Vatican II, “We have allowed a missionary Council to be domesticated. The greatest failure of the post-Vatican II Church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially, on faith’s terms.”

One of the seminarians said he thought the laity should not be pressed to imagine “the holy” as narrowly confined to explicitly churchy-religious activities. Rather, as their vocational center of gravity is “in each and in all of the secular professions and activities; in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven” (Lumen Gentium), they should feel spiritually at home seeking God amid the world’s joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. He added that he would want to encourage lay men and women who feel fired up with faith to simply keep “doing what they’re doing” in the world, but in a manner imbued by the Gospel of Jesus, shaped by faith, hope and love.

The lay Holy of Holies, their inner sanctum, is located in the trenches along the front lines of the Church Militant (CCC#899), embedded deep in the midst of the world, in marriage and family, culture and politics, finance and education, art and science, law and business, military and agriculture, etc. Yes, it’s risky business for those tasked by God with planting His Kingdom outposts in the midst of a fallen world ravaged by sin and death. Yup, it’s hard as hell to live on earth as it is in heaven.

Striving to live so as to hear God say to them on the Last Day, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23), the priestly laity labor to bring all things, from quark to cosmos, person to planet, under the sway of God’s Kingdom. This is what it means to consecrate the world to God, to bring every aspect of our existence into harmony with Him, from moment to moment. To bring all under the royal influence of divine love is to quarry materials for a new creation, turning stones into bread, water into wine and mammon into mercy, offering all of these up — along with our very bodies (Rom. 12:1) — as a living sacrifice to God Most High.

I mean, it’s absolutely mind-blowing to realize that the water, stones, quasars, along with all life on earth (Is. 11:6-11) or anywhere else — offered by us in the Mass — will pass over into the new creation by way of the human Heart of God, Jesus Christ, and by the holy lives of “the just” who are joined to Jesus as His Body. As the Catechism #1047, 50 says,

Having completed the work God called them to do in this world, [the just] will find rest. Moreover, their works will accompany them, and they will find once more, in the land of the living, all the good fruits of their nature and effort—but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed.

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.

I have read that hundreds of times, and I never cease to be overwhelmed by its immensity. My puny life, lived in the labors of love, drenches creation in the Fountain of Immortality. In the next world, I hope, I can see all that came in with me. 💥

If the lay faithful fail to consecrate the world in this way, fail to enter the heart of the world to consecrate, and be thoroughly secular in God’s way, the secular world will be thoroughly desecrated, lost to eternity. God has made Christians the “soul of the world,” and so we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the world turns soulless and damnable. To curse that dark world is to curse ourselves.

Put another way — the Church exists to make relics of matter, feasts of time, sanctuaries of space, temples of bodies, sacrifices of praise, a Kingdom of cities, earth into heaven and heaven into earth, drenching all things in the Speech of God roaring from the the Cross (Amos 1:2; Mark 15:37; 1 Cor. 1:18). Yes, the Church exists to make saints, saints who return to God all that God once placed under their dominion, exercised thus:

Fr. Mychal Judge, carried by those he died serving on the front lines, 9/11/2001

So, I had my class watch about 4 minutes of this interview with Dr. Brescia as he described to an audience of medical professionals how to approach working with patients. In it, he specifically refers to Calvary’s hospital policy regarding the non-use of restraints on patients, and shares a profound story about a man who had been in a Nazi concentration camp and bore on his arm the tattooed numbers given to all camp inmates. After watching the video, I asked the class to tell me how Brescia, in his secular genius as a medical professional, exercised his priestly, prophetic and kingly offices. Their responses were remarkable.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen would certainly agree, Calvary Hospital is well named:

The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap … He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the world and make Christ known.

Here is the video (up to 41:40). I want to kiss his feet…

The Sacrament of Music

[re-post from 2015]

 There is a mysterious and deep kinship between music and hope, between song and eternal life: not for nothing does the Christian tradition portray the Blessed in the act of singing in a choir, in ecstasy and enraptured by the beauty of God. — Benedict XVI

Back in the late 1980’s, I was on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The retreat director, Fr. Basil Pennington, asked me a fascinating question when I met with him for Confession. He said, “If heaven’s filled with music, which we know it is, what piece of music on earth would you want to be playing when you first entered into Paradise and saw the face of God? What I’m really asking is, what song evokes God’s presence most clearly for you in this life?”

I told him I couldn’t answer on the spot, too deep a question for a casual response. He asked me to think about it, and when I figured it out to send him a letter letting him know. Time passed, and one day I heard on the radio the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata — which I’ve long loved. As I listened to it, Fr. Basil’s question came to mind and I was overwhelmed with deep feelings. I knew in that instant, without any doubt, that was it. 

Once, I shared that story with my wife, Patti, when she and I were talking about the spiritual power of music. Unbeknownst to me, she proceeded to practice and memorize the Sonata score, and then played it for me on my birthday thirteen years ago. “…we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this.”

What’s your song?

Here’s the Sonata:

Your Father who sees in secret

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world. — Hans Urs von Balthasar

Yesterday, we read from Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, which contains Jesus’ take on how Jews should carry out their religion’s Big Three: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The key insight He adds to this very traditional Jewish triad is to do them primarily for love of God-neighbor and not for love of self. To accomplish this re-orienting of the ego, Jesus offers a very simple strategy: do all three in secret. Why? Well, when you do good in secret, very quietly and anonymously, it purifies your intention by taking the focus off of yourself and focusing on the God you glorify and the one your benefit (which is saying the same thing). And if there’s anything that’s core about the New Testament, it’s “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

Secret deeds also take away the control you exercise over the immediate “cash value” of good deeds, your ability to milk attention, praise, gratitude out of others. In secret, you give “what’s in it for me?” over into the Hands of God’s re-distributing providence, so He can reward your deeds as He sees fit. In other words, they cultivate the spirit of detachment. This, I would venture, is the meaning of Jesus’ refrain, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

What reward? Well, note that later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks to the rich young man of the reward which is stored up for him as “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21), the “treasury deposit” reward is the direct result of the man’s willingness to surrender his (earned) earthly treasures to the poor. In giving, receiving. In Christianity, reward is inscribed with the logic of love, which makes my reward anything that benefits my neighbors — their good is my good.

And my guess — the way God acts in salvation history — is that He will use our choicest rewards to benefit those we dislike the most, or who dislike us the most (Matt. 5:43-48). Certainly this is how the Father rewarded His Son’s obedient love — by redeeming His enemies (Rom. 5:10). But the real trick is to live like that divine economy is true now. Because it is.

Heaven should be very interesting.

While this strategy of secrecy in good deeds is not always possible, or even desirable (see Matt. 5:16!), it is a solid ascetical (spiritual discipline) practice that should consistently thread through all of our do-gooding. During Lent, it might be good to choose an area where you are especially (overly) sensitive to needing/seeking others’ affirmation, and strategically choose to avoid and avert any of the subtly (or not so subtly) manipulative ways you tend to use to gain attention, applause or approval.

The Son of God’s greatest act of prayer, fasting and mercy-giving was done on the Cross, in supremely hidden love offered lavishly to His hidden Father for ungrateful humanity. It is the perfect symbol of such Lenten giving.

May my Lent and yours be a living Stations as we strive do likewise.

My weakest Lent ever, hopefully

[re-post from 2013]

Nothing could separate me from Him, because He was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul. ― Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, after spending 15 years in a Soviet Gulag

My story is not unique, but it is my story. 1993. Summer. I was hospitalized for extreme panic attacks, but as they’d gone un-diagnosed for eight months, I believed I was going mad. Confined to bed on and off throughout. Like living in a dark prison that was yourself.

One morning, after a whole night of gripping, object-less fear, my white-knuckled hands were drenched with sweat from the strain of a crushing grip desperately searching for security. My hands throbbed with pain. I was like a small child, lost, scared, sure there was no reassuring hand outstretched that could save me. Alone, attended only by phantom shadows.

I remember it. Dropping to my knees, just before dawn, blabbering some inchoate, tear-choked cry for help: “Why? What the hell? Where are you?” Somehow, for a moment, I managed to confess my powerlessness. I abandoned the solipsistic creed of self-reliance I had for years assiduously cultivated amid the chaos of life. Postured in a hapless prostration, I prayed, “This is not in my power, God. I’m done fighting. I accept.” My hands opened.

Grace.

A certain peace came. Certainly not freedom from the struggle, I knew, but hope. No better word to capture that moment.

Someone called me later that day to check on me and recommended I see a Dr. Zimon in Boston. I went. He knew immediately, diagnosed. Began my lifelong road to recovery, to self-discovery, and to a far deeper penetration of faith as “the substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). Before then I’d never seen so clearly that only faith wed to hope is truly radical faith. Faith is realer than real only when its One anchor is all you have left.

Faith is not assent to some intriguing propositions that tickle the mind, smooth life’s rougher edges or strangely warm the insides. God no! Faith is the interior act of clinging to Life itself in the darkest night, at the threshold of the grave. Only then, only there can you say you’ve permitted yourself to profess credo, “I believe,” I am faith’s act. Only then, only there can you say He’s taught you to pray in faith.

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Having said this, he breathed his last. – Luke 23:46

To say, when you fall into the gravest hardship or loss, “I believed until this happened,” is to have failed to grasp what faith is, or when it begins. The whole of our faith’s content finds its perfection in the revelation of God’s lifeless corpse sealed in a tomb, harrowing hell’s hopelessness with the immortal threat of hope in a compassionate Father. Faith is assenting trust in the Author of Life hanging on a Tree, a Son commending His spirit into a reassuring Hand outstretched to save Him.

For Lent, I hope…

To become more able to see, sub specie aeternitatis, “under the aspect of eternity,” my every life limit, failure, weakness, hardship, inability and disappointment, i.e. to see all through the Most High’s eyes.

To see in each of my hollow spaces a vacancy inviting His indwelling.

To discover in my poverty His self-emptying riches.

To sense in His painful absence the presence of His blessed yearning.

To know in the deafening silence His breathless attentiveness.

To enter into His Cloud of Unknowing, trusting.

To hear in His patient compassion a call to listen.

To receive Him in the repulsive, the unattractive, the uninteresting neighbor.

To believe in the words of a friend who died of ALS — “When you’re down to nothing God’s up to something.”

To find someone without hope, with whom I can share hope.

To replace every impulse to impugn those who fail the test of my measure with a secret sacrifice to God for their well-being.

To reveal a God who re-fashions the world from a Cross, raises the dead while in a tomb, opens heaven out of the pit of hell, and who said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9)

Sheer grace

deviantart.net

[This post from 2013 came to mind as I showed the video below to a friend last week]

“There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering.”— St. Ambrose

I met a woman recently who shared with me the story of her husband’s infidelity, and their subsequent journey of reconciliation. It was breathtaking. I asked her if I could share the insights from the story with my readers and she graciously agreed. Here is what I later wrote down, written in her voice.

+ + +

It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a slow drift, years. We had just grown apart, gotten busy, had developed other interests. We got comfortable is the best way to say it. Nothing ever bad or hurtful, he was kind to me and I to him. And I just thought, okay, maybe this is just what happens for some couples. I had the kids and friends and church, and I found ways to deal with no intimacy. But I can see now that we both just stopped fighting for each other, for what our marriage was. And then he did that and it shattered my entire world.

After all of this happened, and he left the other woman, I found out I had cancer and then he lost his job. It seemed like everything we had relied on, the comforts and securities of life, had been ripped out of our hands. And suddenly everything we had once thought important and safe just fell away. What we did have was each other, and we had our children, family, friends, faith. I know its sounds so cliche, but only when everything collapses do you really see life is so damned fragile, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Clearly it took that to shake us awake. Thanks be to God it didn’t tear us apart in the end. That’s sheer grace, let me tell you.

During the time of my health crisis, I could see so clearly that our priorities before all this happened were totally out of whack. The frenetic press of life we kept up to acquire material comforts, our compulsive busyness (which was really distracting us from our misery), taking each other for granted, all of this had made it so easy for anything to pull the rug out from under us. We had lost each other over the years and he fell. But really, we fell. I can see both of our responsibility for it now. Never could have then.

After I found out about his cheating, I was so angry and bitter. I wanted to punish him bad. I wanted to spend all of his money, ruin his reputation and leave him impoverished. Even after he came back and begged my forgiveness when he’d left her. But then the cancer struck, and he lost his job. And everything just looked so different.

I remember one time we sat alone in the oncologist’s office waiting forever for the doctor to come, and we were just silent. I know he was guilt ridden, and I was angry, felt alone and terrified. You could have cut the air with a knife. And then he just broke down, and then I broke down, and we embraced and sobbed. I forgave him, and he received that through his tears. We knew all we had was each other. Again, sheer grace.

For me, now, that’s where God is most present — between two people who having nothing left but love. But each other.

When you share this, my message to everyone is, check your priorities. If everything was taken away from you, but you could keep just one thing, what would be left? What would it be? Then ask yourself, is your life built around that one thing, or something else? Fight for it. Don’t wait. And ask God to help before it’s too late.

Never say you are too busy for Him

[re-post 2014]

My secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to him is loving him. — St. Teresa of Calcutta

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity, they taught me four things.

First, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring lasting hope to others because you have pulled your anchor out of the immovable Rock.

Second, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring enduring love to others because you have ceased to receive that love from its inexhaustible Wellspring.

Third, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring Jesus to others because you have ceased to know Him, and have settled with only knowing of Him.

Fourth, without prayer you lose the capacity to lead others to trust in God because you no longer trust Him. You only spread cynicism, discouragement, doubt and despair.

Yes, you can’t give what you don’t have. No prayer, no God. Know prayer, know God. No wonder St. Teresa of Avila reminded her Sisters so often that the devil has no better strategy for bringing us down than to lead us away from prayer, as he knows well that when we are prayer-less, we are powerless and alone. But when we pray, the evil spirits tremble in terror as we — made royal priests in baptism — permit God’s redemptive power free entry into creation and unleash the triumph of the Cross.

Once when she was in the outhouse, St. Teresa tells us, she was praying and the devil appeared to her, furious that she would not cease praying even there. With her sharp wit, she replied to him, “Don’t worry about that, what goes up is for God, what goes down is for you.”

Or there’s the 4th century story of a desert monk in Syria who, in a vision, saw a demon urging another demon to go and awaken a sleeping monk to torture him with dark thoughts. And he heard the other demon say, “I cannot do this, for one time when I awakened him he got up and burned me by singing psalms and praying.”

To reinforce the primacy of prayer in the work we did, the Sisters had this quote from John 15:5 framed in my room, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Sister who was my supervisor left a handwritten note in my box my last day there, “Be faithful to daily prayer, Brother Tom. Cling to God. Fill yourself with Him so you can give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, love to the loveless, hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless. Never say you are too busy for Him. Carry within you the Kingdom everywhere you go and speak often to the indwelling King. God bless you.”