The Mass in Memoriam

Notre Dame Seminary & Chapel, New Orleans, LA

Yesterday, the Seminary I work at offered the community Mass as a memorial Mass for the repose of my father’s soul. My mom, wife and oldest son attended (our other children were unable to come).

Surrounded by the prayer, song and kindness of seminarians, priest faculty, colleagues and friends, it was an experience of the church as family that is beyond my power to adequately describe. For my 91 year old mother, it was, as she said after, “like being in heaven.” Yes, that’s it. “On earth as it is in heaven,” with heaven being anywhere God’s will is done.

God’s will?  John 17:21-23:

That they may all be one. 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.

For me, yesterday demonstrated how, when the church consistently lives the unity of love found in the Eucharist outside its liturgical celebration, the Mass itself becomes more readily transparent as the time “when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” When we live the unity of love outside the Mass, St. Irenaeus’ words back in 180 A.D. are confirmed, “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.”

For all the prayers, Masses offered, cards, emails, texts, comments, calls, flowers, visits, I, my wife and children, my mom, my step mom and siblings are exceedingly grateful. And for my dad, above all, may all of these acts of faith, hope and love speed him into the fullness of the new creation, where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

I will end with the setting of Psalm 23 that was sung at yesterday’s Mass.

The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.
Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff comfort me.
Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me;
thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cu shall be full.
But thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen

Painful, but always fruitful

The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful. Sooner or later, we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter. — Pope Francis

Someone said to me the other day, after I asked them about how much time they take for quiet prayer, “Yeah, I’m just not a silence kinda person. I just get antsy.” I responded, “Me neither, which is why I have someone hold me accountable to making time every day for silence. For a person of faith, taking time for silent prayer is a grave obligation. The good news is, for Christians the harder obligations are to keep, the better.”

No struggle, no virtue.

For me, when I don’t start my day in silent prayer — however long it is — I lose my center of stability. I become what the Desert Fathers call “dissipated,” spread thin, scattered in focus, agitated, unable to remain attentive to the speed of life, present to the present moment, to God’s presence and to the person I am with.

I have found that this daily commitment to silent time, almost unlike any other single commitment in my life, is wildly assailed every day by temptations to shorten it, fill it with distractions or abandon it. And most of the temptations are to good things.

My spiritual director told me in 1993 that after 20 years of faithfulness to the practice, I will only then be able to judge its fruits fairly. Every year, I restart the 20 year countdown.

One thing I can say with absolute certitude after 25 years of consistently trying to be faithful to my director’s counsel: someone out there does not want me to do it. As the Catechism #2725 says, the Tempter “does all he can to turn man away from prayer.” But, thanks be to God, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Whatever you resolve as both reasonable and generous in your commitment to open a space of time in your life for silence before God, remain relentlessly faithful to it. For a long time. Your resolve will always be tested, but, to quote Churchill, “Never, never, never give in.”

No other single spiritual practice has born more fruit in my life.

Especially in this Age of Distraction, I highly recommend it.

Stern as death is love

My lover belongs to me and I to him.
He says to me:
“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.” — Song of Songs 8:6-7

I met a woman while I was flying back to New Orleans from New England a few weeks ago, and she was telling me about her deceased husband’s slow decline into dementia. Our conversation began after I told her I had just spent time at an institution for dementia patients. After tearfully describing the long and agonizing journey she had walked with him, she said,

Those years redefined love for me. Jeff’s decline demanded from me the willingness to make another person your center of gravity in a way I had never known. Dementia took away the man I knew and asked me to love him just as much. No, much much more.

I remember a few weeks after he stopped knowing who I was, which totally devastated me, I went to see our pastor to get emotional and spiritual help. He referred me to a Christian counselor, but he asked me first to do something that made all the difference for me. He said, ‘Why don’t you renew your wedding vows again this Sunday so you can recommit to him at this new stage in your marriage?’

We did it, and though Jeff was not totally aware of what we were doing, he had a lucid moment during the service. I could see in his eyes he knew it was me. That’s what I clung to over the next two years.

What a timely gift to me she was. I wanted to kiss her feet. Then the other day Patti sent the kids and me a story on cnn.com. A perfect capstone to this woman’s witness to me. Click here.

+ + +

I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotten deck, I promise
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotten deck, I promise
I won’t run away no more, I promise

I like to contemplate the holiness present

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. — Pope Francis

Yes, this is it. Descriptions of the truest soul of holiness, charity. Charity, which is the love with which God loved us in Christ. Holiness is when our love synthesizes, harmonizes, mixes, fuses with God’s love, and then overflows our cup into unsung acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holiness is what St. Thérèse manifested when she said, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.” Because ecstasy, from ek histanai, means “to stand out of yourself.” Get out of yourself, over yourself, and into God and your neighbor.

My wife loves to say that for her the premier sign of holiness in others is found in people who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning they don’t have self knowledge, but that when you are with them, things don’t turn back on them but on others. The exude, in a disarmingly natural way, other-centered love. The relationship of such unaware saints with God is wholly consumed with the welfare of others. Like St. Paul: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Or like the Lord Himself who, rapt in an ecstatic prayer with His Father in John 17, thinks only of us.

Us.

What a magnificent thing that God’s love, epitomized in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, is not competitive. Rather, God delights most when we make our love for Him all about the people around us. Including our parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, enemies. Especially our enemies. God’s favorite way of being loved is through the enemy, the one we find most disagreeable, irritating, objectionable, repulsive. As God the Father said to St. Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you.

This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.

May we take one step today toward this holiness, which the revolution of love.

God against himself

For this holy Day, a quote from Pope Benedict, a spoken reflection by me (excuse the ambient knocking noise outside my car where I recorded), and a hymn.

Israel has committed “adultery”
and has broken the covenant;
God should judge and repudiate her.
It is precisely at this point
that God is revealed to be God
and not man:

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
My heart recoils within me,
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger,
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God
and not man,
the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:8-9).

God’s passionate love for his people
—for humanity—
is at the same time a forgiving love.
It is so great
that it turns God against himself,
his love against his justice.

Here Christians can see
a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross:
so great is God’s love for man
that by becoming man
he follows him even into death,
and so reconciles justice and love. — Pope Benedict XVI

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

[re-post]

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. — Vatican II

My Twenty One Pilots obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young. But what a remarkable depth. A poet’s mind, disarming authenticity. He truly shares the anxieties of this age, which styles him a powerful voice.

The interviewer asked him a fascinating question: what is the mission of Twenty One Pilots? From whence their lyrics, their musical style?

Tyler struggled to answer. He spoke of the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans. He admitted these tempt to distract him. But what really drives him, he said, is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. “If our music can lift up just one person, making their life better and more joyful, then that is the mission of Twenty One Pilots. I don’t just want to entertain people, I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

Their song Car Radio captures this brilliantly,

There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win
And fear will lose
There’s faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

Precisely the definition St. Anselm gave to my life’s work, theology, which is fides quaerens intellectum, which I like to translate as “the quest of thinking faith.”

Unquestionably, there is a Christian worldview that inhabits their sounds and lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to use overtly religious language. Being an inhabitant of our creed-averse culture,  he creatively engages the challenge of trying to carry with him a “theology” into a diverse, splintered and radically pluralistic ethos. Faith “latently” informs their art, making TØP songs like fissures that compromise the integrity of the hardened walls constructed by an atheist, materialist, consumerist secularism. Letting some transcendent air in the room so we can breathe deep.

Or you might say they sing their music (deftly) into a culture comfortable only with an agnostic form of worship offered on “the altar to an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). There on that altar, faith can quietly lead us to contend more seriously with life’s great questions, to grapple with the rawest anxieties of our day, with an eye to hope.

When I went to the TØP concert with my daughters last year, I found my own faith stirred in a powerful way. It was truly an off-beat experience of worship for me, that left a mark for months afterward. All I could think of at the end of their concert, after they finished the song Trees, was the name for God coined by the 13th century Beguine, Marguerite Porete

FarNear

There in the commercialized Smoothie-King Center in NOLA, the God made “far” by our disenchanted culture drew stunningly near. “I want to know you, I want to see you, I want to say, Hello.”

After listening to the interview with Tyler, I wrote a poem. It’s my summary of what I see to be their aesthetic mission. Dang, I wish they could read it.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Canting angst, oracles of Zeitgeist
haunted by a restless Father’s Love
whirling about the cross of Christ
faith to life stitched, deftly spliced.

Rapping deep into a living Tree
facing the face of fear, whilst longing
to be found, kissed by Truth set free
love filial, of our gnarled humanity.

Though never preaching, evoking
a beauty that saves, invites, feeds
thinking into our within, provoking
hope, suicidal minds all-soaking.

Your words, incise, cut, make bleed
yet gently wound to heal and bind
our inscape to a life-giving creed
bruising none of each fragile reed.

Your igneous mission rings clear:

Dare us hope Up, out of the fear
into the peace of God, Unknown
Heart Whisperer, “I AM, here
weeping dry every falling tear.”

A theology of failure

“Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross. Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.” — Pope Francis

A priest I have known for a number of years, who is in his 80’s, shared with me his “theology of failure.”

He served in Latin America for many years among the poor and has endured some exceedingly difficult hardships throughout his life. Yet, he remains a joyful, self-giving man of tireless service who said he will retire only when he is unable to function. A few weeks ago, he taught one of my classes as a guest lecturer. Later, I caught him in the hallway to express my appreciation for sharing his wisdom born of so many cycles of success and failure. Combining the insights he shared with me in the hallway, and in the class, I wrote a Neal-esque journal reflection — in his voice — that night.

Tom, what you begin to see when you have a long view of life, and are honest about things, is that most of what we do in life falls short, falls apart, falls away, is forgotten, goes unappreciated, isn’t what we expected or wanted. That could make you pessimistic and cynical, very easily.

Lots of very good people I worked with over the years, who had wonderful ideals and plans to help people, burned out because things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. And they became hard and bitter. But thank God I had a priest who helped me to see things differently when I was in Latin America. And the poor I served, who have more faith than I ever will, helped me see things differently.

It’s this. To those of us who stumble along through life doing what we can, Jesus on the cross gives hope by making failure the privileged entry point of the Kingdom of God into this world. See, when you realize you’re really nothing of yourself, that everything is in God’s hands, then you’re free to do everything with a total confidence, without being paralyzed by fear of failure, by regret or by obsession over results. And you’re not consumed by angry judgment over yours or others’ failures.

You’re joyful.

Pope Francis talks about a “revolution of tenderness,” and this is what he means. When you see this is how God works from the cross, you are gentle with yourself and others. Jesus’ response to everything falling apart around Him was forgiveness of us and total trust in the Father’s power to raise out of the rubble, a Kingdom.

With this faith, you can see that the farther something is from your control, the more important it becomes in God’s victory over evil. “Power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Failure wrapped in surrender to God’s mercy is the victory won, the Kingdom come. That will be the long view from heaven. But when you have faith, that can be your view right now.

It’s not easy, but what’s the alternative?

And let me tell you, you sleep a lot better [he laughs].