Alone with … Our Father

There are those who think, based on a one-sided spirituality, that prayer should be unalloyed contemplation of God, free of all distraction, as if the names and faces of others were somehow an intrusion to be avoided. Yet in reality, our prayer will be all the more pleasing to God and more effective for our growth in holiness if, through intercession, we attempt to practice the twofold commandment that Jesus left us. — Pope Francis

In May I gave a talk on Pope Francis’ latest document, Gaudete et exultate, on the call to holiness. Afterward, a woman came up and introduced herself to me. She and her husband of over 30 years had 3 adult children, two of whom were adopted out of foster care. She shared with me an insight I found very profound, and agreed to allow me to share it anonymously here. She said,

When I was younger, in my 20’s, I loved prayer that cast the whole world aside and left me and God alone together. I had gone on a retreat in college, and the priest who was leading it said, “Prayer is being alone with the Alone. Prayer is leaving the world behind and focusing on God alone.” I loved that image when I heard it and wanted to pray like that.

But once my husband and I had children it all changed. My prayer time suddenly filled with thoughts and worries over each child. All I could do was talk to God about them, I just couldn’t help myself. They just popped in uninvited! That was so hard for me. I tried techniques to focus but to no avail. I always felt my prayer had degenerated from the early days and I’d lost my focus on God.

So when you read that passage about intercessory prayer [the one above], I was like, “Pope Francis, seriously? Why couldn’t you have written that 35 years ago! It would have saved me a lot of grief and struggle.” That’s just so incredibly liberating to know that speaking to God about my children, husband, mother-in-law — whatever — is pleasing to God and brings me close to Him.

I said, “Well if it’s good enough for Jesus in heaven, who lives for ever to intercede for us before the Father [Heb. 7:25], it’s good enough for us!” Then I shared with her what an 80+ year old missionary priest once said in a homily,

My great aunt Gracie became a saint by praying endless novenas for everyone else’s intentions. I called her the Novena Mystic, because amazing things would happen for others through her prayer. She once told me, “I told God long ago, just give to whoever I tell you whichever graces you were going to give to me.”

That “holy bossiness” reminds me of the parable Jesus tells about the hard-nosed widow demanding action from the unjust judge [Luke 18:1-8].

If she’s not the definition of holiness, nothing is. I took the vow of poverty, but she lived it. She’d give you the shirt off her back and the grace from her soul.

Then I said,

Let me read you another passage from Pope Francis that I quote often. It makes this same point. He says, “those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.” Isn’t that amazing?

While there are lots of reasons why this is true, one of the most important is that the vocation of marriage and family life opens for us a very different path to God and life of prayer than that of a celibate, contemplative nun or monk. Marriage and family become part of the very definition of our intimacy with God. He loves them infinitely more than we do, so when we speak of them and their needs to Him, His heart leaps and His heart fuses with ours.

She said, “Damn…oops!” We laughed.

I rely on the Word

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. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”

 

The Childlike

I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will — Matt. 11:25-27

These words from yesterday’s Gospel at Mass continue to stir inside of me. Jesus spoke these words of prayer to the Father right after having excoriated the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, who refused to “repent” (11:20) in the face of His many deeds of power. In a moment, Jesus shifts from grief and anger to a prayer of praise to the Father for His gracious providential will. What a contrast!

They had not “repented” – metenoēsan — which means they refused to have a “change of mind.” Because that is the real goal of Jesus’ miracles and ministry, cognitive therapy; to invite us to a radical change of mind that accords with the mind of God.

We often think of the word “repent” as a mere moral exhortation, i.e. cease doing evil and learn to do good. While that is a core element of repentance, its main thrust is to invite a deep paradigm shift in the way we see everything, i.e. to acquire the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). As the Emerson said,

Sow a thought, reap an action;
sow an act, reap a habit;
sow a habit, reap a character;
sow a character, reap a destiny.

Jesus’ frustration with Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum is that His miracles failed to produce their desired effect, which is to blow open minds so they could be reformed in the divine image. The Latin word miraculum, deriving from the root word mirari, which means “wonder, astonishment, amazement,”  conveys this point well. Miracles, authored by Truth incarnate, are meant to “blow our settled categories” and incite wonder, making us susceptible to change. Wonder, a gift of the Spirit, is the beginning of any quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Note, from this perspective, miracles are not dazzling tricks of a magician meant to amaze spectators at God’s power to violate the laws of nature He Himself established. Rather, they are extraordinary displays of the final meaning of creation, the ultimate (and so “ordinary”) mission of human life, i.e. to feed the hungry, cure the sick, free the oppressed, forgive sin, and so on. In other words, each miracle contains a divine-human deed and an implicit command of mercy. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they manifest their God-destined fulfillment in the new creation that Jesus came to inaugurate by re-founding this creation on the law of cruciform love.

You might say that miracles are “performed” so that their recipients and witnesses will be dazzled into wonder sufficiently to embrace “these things” of the Gospel (see Matt. 5-7) and then perform the truth each miracle contains and signifies.

And so we return to Jesus’ praise to the Father for the fact that only the “childlike” are able to see, embrace and perform the wondrous beauty of this new creation’s law of merciful love. In fact, the word Jesus uses to describe these childlike is nēpiois, which is better translated “infants.” Wow! Why? Because only infants, who are wonder incarnate, are entirely disposed to being (re)formed by the newness of the world they see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Only infants open up in absolute trust to their mother and father to faithfully interpret the world for them.

In the face of the dawning of a new creation, inscribed in Blood with the law of the Gospel, we need to become infants again and surrender ourselves in absolute trust to the revelation of our re-creating Father, and of His only-begotten Son who entered this world first as an infant.

Teach me, O Christ, to repent, to think anew in wonder at the mystery of merciful love you revealed on the Cross; to live that love out to the full in trust and in that way lead all to their final destiny when you will be All in All. Amen.

Fidelity, Fatherhood and Prayer

When Ashley and our daughter Maria performed the other week at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, as part of the Al Copeland Foundation’s “Chicken Jam” fundraiser which supports new local cancer research, education and patient programs, it was for me, my wife and our other children a blended experience of joy, nerves and pride. This was their largest venue thus far, with nearly an hour to fill with music.

They soared.

There was even a friend of mine, herself a musician (and a theologian), who flew all the way from Chicago to New Orleans just to see and hear them. I told her that all of us were overwhelmed by her show of support, but she quipped back, “Support? Are you kidding? They don’t need my support! I just wanted to hear them perform live!”

Growing up, I passed by so many opportunities to try new things that involved the vulnerability of risk. I lived with a certain fear of failure, of being shamed by peers, and so mostly chose to blend in and pick the low-hanging fruit, playing it safe. This is not a ‘woe is me,’ simply a statement of fact.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand (aka grace), after my faith conversion in 1987, I rapidly shed a large portion of those fears and began to venture out into new and uncharted territories. I am exceedingly grateful to God for this, as so much of what I have been able to do in my life would never have been had I remained in the prison of fear.

Raising our own children, Patti and I, encouraged by so many extraordinary parents, families and friends we came to know, worked mightily to offer them an environment and opportunities to spread their wings, to risk new adventures, to discover the gifts God has placed in them.

Innumerable times over the years, the ghosts of my past would haunt me in the night, warning me of grave dangers that awaited my children were they to step out into the unknown. These shadows, bearing weapons of fear and despair, knew well my weaknesses. Without prayer, which I clung to in those nights, I don’t know how I could have pressed on with confidence for our children.

This is where my vocation as father saved me, the knowledge that my children needed me to be something far larger than those constricted spaces of my soul circumscribed by my own limits. Fatherhood called me to transcend those limits for them, to remove my gaze from my own issues and choose instead to focus on the potential of their God-given greatness. As a Confessor once said to me, “They are God’s children, only yours on loan. Help them seek His vision for them, not yours. His is much bigger and better.”

I recall a very specific time when I was bogged down by a “Tom-limit” in dealing with one of our children who was facing a very difficult time. My wife, who detected my struggle, directly confronted me on it. It was an important epiphany for me. She said,

I know what you’re thinking and what you’re afraid of, but you’ve got to remember that it’s your issue. You can’t let it get in the way of letting [our child] learn for himself how much he can handle. You have to set aside your own stuff, step out of yourself and challenge him to see just how far he can go. God knows and I know what you want to protect him from, but he doesn’t need to know.

Wow, when someone knows you that well there’s just no hiding. What a grace! I am convinced that those who lack such vulnerability in a friendship simply cannot grow. That day, I grew. As did my son.

All of our children have vastly transcended my limits, by God’s grace, each discovering their signature uniqueness, going places I would never have dreamed of going. It’s awesome to see. While they have and will always face the hardships life brings, and fail along the way, to see their wings spread, their hearts swell, their gifts blossom, their characters solidify, their faith come alive in a way wholly unique to each … well, there are few greater joys I can imagine sharing in life with my wife.

One of my favorite prayers has become sharing with God my constant amazement over the miracle that is each of our children. I am grateful when I see my own good qualities in them, exceedingly grateful when I see them surpass my limits, and overwhelmed with gratitude when I see God draw out good for them from my own failures as a father.

Ashley and Maria sang that night a song I had never heard before, Fidelity by Regina Spector. As they sang, I was awash in gratitude while standing with my family and my friend from Chicago. Copious tears streamed down my face, at those words…

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart…

That’s it. Love has broken my heart. May it never recover.

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Well, it breaks my heart
Suppose I never ever met you
Suppose we never fell in love
Suppose I never ever let you
Kiss me so sweet and so soft
Suppose I never ever saw you
Suppose you never ever called
Suppose I kept on singing love songs
Just to break my own fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Break my fall
Break my fall
All my friends say
That of course it’s
Gonna get better
Gonna get better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in my mind
All of this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart

For us men and for our salvation…

“Something that is yours forever is never precious” ― Chaim Potok

On Saturday, I taught a class on Sacred Scripture at the seminary. Part of the day I spent sharing with the students the immensity and complexity of the history of Israel’s journey from Abram to Jesus that gave us the “Old Testament,” and especially focused on the enormous hardships and suffering Israel endured “for us men and for our salvation” so that we would have privileged access to God’s self-revelation in His inspired Word.

I also mentioned at one point how this should shape in us a sense of reverence and gratitude every time we receive, ponder, pray, teach the words of Scripture, realizing that these words we hear in the Liturgy or read in the Bible were inscribed on parchment at great cost to both God and God’s People.

Throughout the evening after that class, and into the day on Sunday, I was overwhelmed by this awareness. By chance, my Mom asked yesterday if we could watch Fiddler on the Roof, one of our family’s favorite musicals. When we got to the scene near the end of the film, when the Jews in Anatevka are forced out of their homes into exile, my inner sense of awe and gratitude reached a fever pitch. I immediately thought of the Orthodox Jewish Rabbi I worked with in Hartford back in the 1980’s, whom I have quoted here before. He once said to me, when I asked him what it meant to him to be part of God’s chosen people,

Some chosen-ness! Disasters, enslavements, exiles, genocides, forever wandering the earth like our father Abraham. This is the terrible and blessed burden of being chosen, of making known His holiness among the nations. Baruch Hashem.

Baruch Hashem means, “Blessed is the Name (of G-d).”

He also added, “I will say, if you Christians are right that Jesus is the Messiah, his fate certainly fits the Jewish mold well. God asks us always, like our father Abraham, to leave everything behind whenever He asks it of us. To place whatever He gives, back into His Hands. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]. Only then can we be free to shine the light of Torah wherever we find ourselves.”

Last night I wrote in my journal, “The handing on of God’s Torah, His Word to the world requires of His covenant people that they be willing, in the final analysis, to let go of absolutely everything else except for fidelity to Him. Only what we are willing to surrender, to let go of, to give away becomes His revelation. And only what is given away is received forever in the Age to Come.”

High Fives or Watered Gardens?

[beware: this is a meandering post]

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
To choose always the hardest. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was talking with one of my children the other night [I will say it is my son to keep it non-specific] about people who spend their lives fending off all criticism and any honest feedback from others. Actually, we were speaking of a specific person, but then generalized a bit. Whether by isolating themselves, feigning omniscience, posturing as the mountaintop cynic, claiming a victim status (not my fault), or sustaining an elaborate set of strategies to elicit praise, affirmation and agreement from those around them, these people live in a perpetual buffered zone.

He said, “You just can’t get close to them because you can never be totally real with them. You can’t have a real discussion because you know they’re going to go into defensive mode and it’s always about them winning. It’s like they’re always trying to prove something or can’t learn from you, and that’s just so fake and annoying.”

The conversation was sparked after we listened to a recent live performance by Sigrid of her song, High Five, which is all about this kind of person.

We talked about the best way to relate to this person and maybe help them not feel so threatened or just to face the facts. We talked about this person’s family upbringing and what in the family system might have helped to form those ways of dealing with life. We also agreed that all of us can fall into variations of that pattern, making the distance between us and this person only a matter of degree. He said, “Yeah, I pray for him to get a dose of humility and for me to have patience.”

We talked about the importance of honest friendships or even good therapy to confront such things. I said to my son that one of the main goals of friendship and of therapy is to help us to acquire virtues, like courage, humility or honesty, and added, “Years ago I went to therapy, and quickly learned that in the end it’s there to help you become a good person, not just a more functional person. In fact, the underlying goal of all education is supposed to be cultivating a virtuous character. But we’ve mostly lost that.”

One thing my wife did/does exceptionally well as a parent is work hard at intentionally cultivating virtues in our children and their friends. When they were younger, she gave an award to our children at the end of each school year honoring their unique “beatitude” virtues. For her, chores were about solidarity, dealing with irritating siblings was about patience, organizing your time well was a matter of prudence, admitting you messed up was about practicing humility, putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher was linked to justice, serving in the soup kitchen was a work of mercy, or asking someone how their day went (and then listening) meant choosing charity over selfishness.

Once when one of our children said, “I don’t feel like doing that,” Patti replied, “If I did what I felt like, you’d starve.” She also liked to say, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”

I flew up to D.C. to meet with the late Carmelite scholar, Fr. Kieran Kavanagh, back in 2006 to discuss my dissertation on St. John of the Cross. It was a great honor. Among the many things he taught me, I recall him saying something particularly remarkable. “One might say,” he said in his very gentle voice, “that for St. Teresa the whole purpose of prayer is to grow virtue. Because when you grow virtue, your soul is conformed to the divine image and so is most suitable to union with God. To be merciful is to be disposed to union with divine mercy; to be just, disposed to union with divine justice; kind, with His kindness; and so on.”

He then added, “As you know, she describes different kinds of prayer as various methods of acquiring water, and says the virtues are flowers in the garden of the soul. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say for her the water of prayer is given for sake of the flowers of virtue. Which means if you want to judge the health of your prayer life, she’d tell you, don’t concern yourself with lofty feelings or inspired sentiments. No, she’d say examine your response next time someone crosses you…”

‘Getting’ to heaven?

[re-post 2014]

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. — Catechism #1047

This astonishing statement from the Catechism is the Catholic view of heaven. Our universe, maybe ~40 billion light years wide and ever-expanding, filled with literally unimaginable wonders, is destined to be transformed, restored and placed at the service of redeemed humanity to the eternal glory of God in the Age to Come.

Everything from quasars to quails, supernovas to supermarkets, the most insignificant thoughts to the grandest deeds will somehow all be caught up into paschal fire of Christ’s risen glory, purified, transfigured, made new. Every time I read, for example, Romans 8:18-30 or 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 15:20-28 — my mind blows a gasket.

What does a transfigured cosmos even look like? Well, if the Book of Revelation is any indication, certainly infinitely more wild than this already-wild universe is! It’s no wonder St. Paul, when he was asked by the Corinthians what the resurrected body would be like, simply said, “Fool!” (1 Cor. 15:36)

Often we will speak in our Catholic lingo about “getting to heaven.” While this is certainly not wrong, it can be misleading. Not long ago, I was at a party and a man I was speaking to said, “I can’t wait to die and get out of this shell [his body] and leave this world behind for heaven.” The implication? This world is, at best, a holding tank where we prove ourselves worthy of heaven, but in the end earth is to be cast off and left behind for something far better.

The problem? The Risen Christ begs to differ. What Jesus showed us in raising to new life His brutalized mortal body, making it the cornerstone of the new creation, is that heaven is only heaven when it is wedded to earth and the two become one. Heaven was made for earth and earth for heaven. Mary herself, first fruit of Christ’s redeeming work, was assumed body and soul into heaven.

And the body is not merely a shell that “I” somehow inhabit. Rather, the body is essential to my identity as an ensouled body and an embodied soul. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said of the disembodied soul, “the soul is not I.”

Jesus rising in His historical body, still marked by the open wounds, sealed this truth as an eternal truth. The Resurrection means that, in the World to Come, whether in heaven or hell, we will receive our bodies again, transformed, restored and, for the saved, placed at the service of the eternal glory of God.

The new creation is the old creation raised with Christ into eternal glory.

But the wedding of heaven and earth is not just a future promise that we passively salute from afar. It is to be a present reality, an event happening here and now, set in motion by Christ’s Passover from death to life and detonated in this world by the coming of the Pentecostal Spirit. In Jesus, heaven and earth are perfectly wed now as a new creation. And in us who are His pilgrim Body the heavenly wedding unfolds until the end of time, when God will at last be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

This is precisely what we pray for and consent to every time we pray the Our Father,

Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven

So the meaning and value of this life for humanity is colossal. The mission of the Church is not just to save “souls.” We daily bear on our shoulders the weight of the entire “visible universe” that awaits our priestly Yes for it to be consecrated and transfigured in the Kingdom of Heaven, offered up by us as a living sacrifice to God in Christ through the eternal Spirit.

How? So much to say! But as I have gone long let me be as brief as possible. To that end, I will quote that timeless sage, Belinda Carlisle:

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth

That’s it. How do you consecrate and transfigure this creation into the new creation? Do this:

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another. — John 13:34

Such a love is the “freedom of the children of God” that creation awaits,

the creation itself will be set free
from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom
of the glory of the children of God. — Rom. 8:21

Which calls to mind a note Br. Jude Lasota, B.H. once sent my wife shortly after she had our second child:

The love you and Tom have for those children redeems the whole universe. So it all matters.