To be freed

While diligence and industriousness are important virtues for any kind of work, they become vices when these habits serve as means to escape oneself
through excessive work, leading him or her to crowd out all other dimensions of life. Acedia [sloth] produces boredom not in work, but in everything else but work. — Michael Naughton

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a retreat on the importance of leisure. I focused on the importance of ensuring life is always marked by an ebb and flow between work and leisure, especially in a culture that equates productivity and worth, busyness and value, and reduces leisure to recovery from and for work.

Among the many definitions of leisure I proposed, I said leisure is a disposition of inner freedom (licere = “to be freed”) that makes one capable of receiving existence as a sheer gift and not as an earned reward. Engaging in leisure of this sort is a sign you have affirmed that being (“who I am”) precedes doing (“what I do”), and have ceased trying — at least for a time — to manipulate existence into being what you wish it to be, and not receiving it for what it is.

Leisurely activities, always carried out “without a why,” as ends-in-themselves, affirm what is most essential in life — beauty, truth, goodness, love, mystery. And they affirm relationships as primary, as the true ends never to be turned into mere means. As such, leisure requires time, patient waiting, silence, wonder and abundant love.

Leisure re-grounds our sense of worth and identity in the act of creation, in having been created by God from nothing as a gift freely given — our existence being a gift unsought, undeserved, unmerited, unearned.

We were not created to achieve some other end or goal, but simply for our own fulfillment (the achievement of which entails the fulfillment of all humanity and the whole of creation). “The glory of God is the living man.” God does not need us, but at every moment we exist because God wills us to exist. Wants us to exist. Period. Nothing else justifies our reason for being other than an infinite and eternally sustained act of gratuitous love emanating from the God whose existence is “without a why.”

Love is our origin, our end, our raison d’être.

Prayer in its deepest meaning is the act of freely submitting to God’s gaze of merciful love on the seventh day of creation. In prayer, we are willingly bathed in God’s willing Word: “Very good. Very beautiful” (Gen 1:31). And only those who consent in prayer to receive this gaze, even into their darkness, can choose to look out with this same gaze on all…

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.” — Luke 23:33-34

Worship is a confession of our gifted inalienable worth as we praise, bless, adore, glorify, and give thanks to the One “who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with thy kingdom which is to come.” Not because God needs such worship from groveling sycophants, but because worship rightly disposes us to receive all He has already given, from all eternity.

The most fruitful activity of man is to receive God.

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. – Psalm 127:2

In my talk, I said,

Amazing that God had to command the Sabbath, to command us to stop working. Command leisure. Sin makes us slaves to work, to busyness, to distraction, keeps us in the bondage of Egypt where we are not free to worship.

I’ve always thought how apropos it was that, on the gates of Auschwitz, the Nazis placed these words: Arbeit macht frei, “Work sets you free.”

If you feel worthless when you are not productive, busy or working;
or if, when you rest, you feel guilty,
as if you have not sufficiently justified your reason for existing as you rest;
or if you cannot endure praise for any sign of goodness or beauty in you,
but ever demur that you are unworthy of any praise;
or if, when you are not suffering in some way,
you feel you don’t deserve good or pleasure or joy for its own sake –
you need to sit at the feet of Queen Sabbath, who, as gift of God,
was sent to remind you of the words spoken at your conception:
“I love you: I want you to be.”


Becoming More Verb than Noun

The church is: a conspiracy of love for a dying world, a spy mission into enemy occupied territory ruled by the powers of evil; a prophet from God with the greatest news the world has ever heard, the most life changing and most revolutionary institution that has existed on earth. — Peter Kreeft

In English, to me, the word “church” sounds so bland, dull. So churchy. It is used to translate the Greek word ekklesia, from whence we get words like ecclesial and ecclesiastical. Yet church does not in fact translate the meaning of ekklesia. So where does it come from? Well, in its long history, it descends through German into English from the Greek word kyriakon, “the Lord’s,” referring to the Lord’s house.

Okay, yes, the building, and the people of God who gather there, are indeed the Lord’s house, but what does the actual word ekklesia mean?

Ekklesia, which in the Greek Old Testament translates the Hebrew qahal, can be translated “assembly” or “the summoned.” But its roots in Greek are even more vivid and dynamic, with ek meaning “out” and kalein meaning “to call.” So, church is the gathering of those who have been called out to, as in 1 Peter 2:9:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

So if I playfully stitch together these two etymologies, the church is a mother who stands at the entrance of the Lord’s house and calls out, “Children! Come home! The Feast is prepared…” This virgin-mother pregnant with the divine Word, this bride made one flesh with the Bridegroom, calls out with the Spirit of Jesus to the whole of creation: “Come!” (Rev. 22:17)

So “church” is no static noun, but rather teems with all the vitality of a verbal God, a theo-dramatic action, a living invitation from heaven to earth from the prodigal Father whose mad love is our final resting place.

I’ve always wondered why, in the prodigal son parable, the mother of the sons is nowhere present. Why only the father? Well, I believe Jesus’ parable — like all of them — is an invitation to the Jewish hearers to accept their vocation, their divine “calling” to be the mother of all humanity, standing at the threshold of the Lord’s house, ceaselessly crying out on behalf of a waiting, yearning, running Father who wills that all his children in exile come home.

A great examination of conscience for me today! When homeless men and women encounter me, those living in a thousand exiles, do they find in me a faithful echo of the Father’s homecoming call? Am I the place of welcome into the house of the Father? In the final analysis, that is the vocation within every vocation, and the soul of all prayer — to hear the homecoming call, and then to stand with the Father at the threshold of welcome, crying out…

[Verse 1]
I went the ways of wayward winds
In a world of trouble and sin
Walked a long and crooked mile
Behind a million rank and file
Forgot where I came from
Somewhere back when I was young
I was a good man’s child

[Verse 2]
‘Cause I lost some nameless things
My innocence flew away from me
She had to hide her face from my desire
To embrace forbidden fire
But at night I dream
She’s singing over me
Oh, oh, my child

[Chorus 1]
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me

[Verse 3]
Wondering where I might begin
Hear a voice upon the wind
She’s singing faint but singing true
Son, there ain’t nothing you can do
But listen close and follow me
I’ll take you where you’re meant to be
Just don’t lose faith

[Verse 4]
So I put my hand upon the plow
Wipe the sweat up from my brow
Plant the good seed along the way
As I look forward to the day
When at last I see
My Father run to me
Singing oh, my child

[Chorus 2]
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
Return to me
My child

[Chorus 3]
Come on home, home to me
And I will hold you in my arms
And joyful be
There will always, always be
A place for you at my table
At my table
At my table
Return to me

Homely Holiness

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. — St. John Paul II

I met him first in 1998. He has large calloused hands, dirty fingernails and speaks with a southern twang. He’s been fixing cars since he was a kid, under his dad’s tutelage. He works days, nights and weekends to keep his small business open, and the enormous commitment has cost him a lot in life. Not all good, he admits. But, he once said, “it put food on the family table and a roof over our heads,” as he points to the photographs of his sons and wife pinned to the cork board behind the cash register. He runs an honest business, and you know when you bring your car to him for repair you’ll get all the information you need to decide what’s best for your budget. He’d give you the shirt off his back, remembers everyone’s name, treats his customers like family. He loves to ask me questions about Catholicism whenever I come by, tells me about his struggle to “remember God during the day.” On the wall in the garage is a framed quote: “We abide by the Golden Rule here.”

I met her first in 1995. For about ten years before we met, she had worked for the Catholic Church in a full time ministry that focused on coordinating among several parishes an organized outreach to nursing homes and to the home bound. Her goal, she said, was to make certain the elderly who were without the personal touch of family or friends would have someone to love and advocate for them, and who would allow them to find nourishment for their faith. She finally retired about six years ago, though she continues to serve on a voluntary basis. She always felt a special calling to accompany the elderly who were dying. This, she believed, was her “call within a call” — to be a presence of compassion for people at the end of life. She has shared with me, over the years we have known each other, dozens of stories recounting the ways Jesus has used her to work deathbed miracles of healing, forgiveness, family reconciliation and acceptance of death.

Both have confided to me their inner demons, and both have variously confessed these demons have been their greatest life teachers. As my dad loved to say, “No one can be saved without humility. But you have two choices: Practice it willingly, or God will strip everything from you and teach you. Though most usually take the second, I highly recommend the first.”

I live very far away from both these people now, but, by coincidence, spoke with each of them over the last two weeks. Two very different people from very different backgrounds, but the effect they each have on me is always the same. They leave me lifted, hopeful, filled with a renewed desire to be a better man. I feel more human. As a member of my wife’s choir puts it, “they ooze goodness.” Not Pollyanna goodness, but goodness wrought amid the thorns and thistles of life. People like them, to me, stand among the hidden “pillars of the world” whose greatness is in being unsung, quiet, sans the glitter of memorial plaques and applause. Homely is the holiness I personally find most compelling.

There are so many of these I have come to know. I try to touch the hems of their garments when I am with them.

My wife has long said to me that the people she is most inspired by in life are those who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning people who lack self-knowledge or a strong sense of self or who evince a spiritual low self-esteem. Rather these, she says, are self-less, less self, who very naturally shift the center of gravity to others. In the words of St. Paul, those who “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but humbly count others more important than [themselves]” (Philippians 2:3).

You’re not in control

What a weakness it is to love Jesus Christ only when He caresses us, and to be cold immediately once He afflicts us. This is not true love. Those who love thus, love themselves too much to love God with all their heart. –St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Last week, I visited with a woman I have known for quite a number of years. She’s a person of faith and has seen her share of tragedy in life.  When I asked her how she has dealt with various hardships, she said something that took my breath away. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

There’s a point where you realize that ultimately you’re not in control, and you have two options. You can either curl up into a ball and die or you can open your hands up and live. One is a surrender to your own defeat, the other is a surrender to a victory that’s not your own. For me, that’s the real meaning of power being made perfect in weakness — giving space for God to love you where love seems lost, especially when everything in you says otherwise.

Then I added:

In this is the genesis of all love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us.
Where there is no love, call down that love, and you will draw out love.
This is the epiclesis at the heart of all prayer — hands turned upward to receive before being turned downward to consecrate.

Holy (Unchosen) Family

[This will actually begin a break as I will be away from internet for five days!]

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. — Harper Lee

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of His rescue plan for the human race.

The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or like those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work or what our religion, race or ethnicity is. Or even what parish family we happen to belong to.

George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations, that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.

Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into — relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference — that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are ‘stuck to’ that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “you shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur — one “near by” — love encounters its highest calling.

Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.

The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the Kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.

G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The word “religion,” from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a People — many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.

This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the Cross by His neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as He obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.

I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather we fiercely believe, as a rule (§518), that the parish we belong to — are “bound fast to” — is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our land-locked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-by’s with whom God’s scheming Providence ✟ has arranged for us to learn love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.

May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-by’s, beginning with those nearest us at home.

The Truth will drop your facade

The truth has not so much set us free as it has ripped away a carefully constructed facade, leaving us naked to begin again.
― Lisa Unger

This time of year, amid the festive lights and joyful songs and celebrations, some of the darkest parts of ourselves, and especially of our families, can surface and sully what should be a merry season. Estrangements become vivid, loneliness cuts deep, loss opens its dark doors; the feeling of being forgotten, left behind or overwhelmed suffocates. Or maybe we are consumed by that deep nagging sense of being a failure as Christmas letters pour in, detailing what seem to be wonderful and successful lives.


But isn’t this the point of the season? Aren’t we “the people who dwell in darkness” who see a great light? Yes! The Savior, not the Cheerleader reigns. To do what? To save a wretch like we! Which is why we jubilantly sing on Christmas,

He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found…

He comes to speak blessings into our curse-drenched world, to enter our darkness with His great light, to descend into the realm of death with His life, to bound into a land of gloom carrying His hope, to walk into our lonely lives with His loving Presence.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn, as Christ comes — the Rising Sun — to draw out our darkness from its hidden place, and conquer.

The source of Christmas cheer is not that all is well and God’s arrival is the icing on the cake. No! All is not well, and God has come to His people to set them free. We are imprisoned, all of us. That’s the point.

The key? To use Advent as a season to stop and drop the facades. Then let the River of Life roll over us. Give Christ leave to descend into your sundry hells, and ask Him — no, beg Him! — to dawn in you the light of hope. Stop trying to kill your pain, and leave room for His love to reign … in the silence.

Only then you will be ready to spread good cheer.

We once got a Christmas letter from a family who detailed all of the unpleasant dysfunctions and failures, along with the successes, of their year. Though it was done in a spirit of good humor, it was absolutely refreshing. Yes, there was a real family, a family ready for the birth of the naked, crying, hungry Truth who sets us free. To be real, and joyous.

If we so choose.

So get real before the Real, and then have a Merry Christmas.

St. John of the Cross and Mr Rogers

Happy feast of St. John of the Cross, that saint of the luminous night.

At the core of St. John’s teaching is that God — especially by our prayerful consent in daily silence — mercifully comes into our distracted, neurotic, insecure, addiction-ridden, ego-driven lives and gradually dismantles — purges — the tangled mess of our compulsive narcissism in order to free us and make us ever-more capable of receiving divine love.

God does this heart and brain surgery, St. John says, both by means of infused mystical grace and through the painful grinding and sifting of graces embedded in our daily responses to all that life throws at us. Our grace-drenched choices to live in love in the midst of an always imperfect world forges us into the image and likeness of Jesus Crucified. This is what St. John is getting at in this my favorite quote from him:

…engrave this truth on your heart … you have not come to the monastery [or marriage, priesthood, a parish, a job, etc.] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building.

Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.

You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter the religious life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering the religious state, you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

What power there is in the conviction that the primary discernment of God’s will in our lives is not whether we should take this or that path (e.g. a state in life or career). Rather, the primary discernment is, how am I to best submit myself to the Master’s chiseling Hand in every moment, wherever and with whomever I find myself.

In other words, the universal and founding vocation is the vocation to Christ-love, all-ways. The rest is commentary.

St. John contends that only when we are capable of receiving divine love from the lowliest, roughest and most hidden of places are we truly empowered to give love in those places. And the capacity to love in the lowliest, roughest and most hidden of places is the end game of salvation. St. John:

A la tarde te examinarán en el amor; aprende a amar como Dios quiere ser amado y deja tu condición, “When evening comes, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.”

As I was watching an interview of Mr. Rogers late last night, I was deeply moved by his description of his own life disciplines that reveal to me the secret of his extraordinary loving character. I have it queued here to the place in the interview, and this segment lasts just over 5 minutes.