Thy will be done … by me.

There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers. — St. Teresa of Avila

There are so many ways to interpret Teresa’s phrase, which in modern times has been turned into “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

A simple and direct meaning of this saying is that when we ask God for a grace or favor or gift, we must allow Him full freedom to answer it as He wills. Which often, if not mostly, greatly surprises us. And not in a good way, if we are not open to surprises.

But there is another meaning that I find most profound, and it is that we must realize that God wishes to answer our prayer principally by making us into His primary response. I say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!” He says, “Be merciful to sinners.” I say, “Lord, show me the way!” He says, “Lead the lost.” I say, “Lord, do not leave me alone!” He says, “Visit the lonely.”

St. John Paul II after 9/11 said that prayers for peace are good, as long as we are prepared for God to tear up all injustice to achieve it. And Pope Benedict, when he spoke as a German Pope at Auschwitz, made this stunning point:

…our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness, pusillanimity, indifference or opportunism.

When we cry out to God to wake up and defend the vulnerable, we discover at once the tremors of an earthquake awakening within, urging us to act; a quake that splits open our hardened hearts.

Back in 1990, I was moaning and groaning to my spiritual director about all of the catastrophes in my life, as everything seemed to be unraveling outside and inside. After enduring my lament, he said, “Do you recall last month what you told me you felt so powerfully God was calling you to?” I said sheepishly, “Yes, trust.” “Right!,” he replied, “and now He gives you real opportunities to trust and you complain! What do you want?” I said, “Infused trust?” We laughed.

Then he shared with me a story about St. Philip Neri that I was reminded of the other day as I was reading a book on prayer by Anthony Bloom. He says,

Neri was an irascible man who quarreled easily and had violent outbursts of anger and of course endured violent outbursts from his brothers. One day he felt that it could not go on. Whether it was virtue or whether he could no longer endure his brothers, his Vita does not tell us. The fact is that he ran to the chapel, fell down before a statue of Christ and begged Him to free him of his anger. He then walked out full of hope.

The first person he met was one of the brothers who had never aroused the slightest anger in him, but for the first time in his life this brother was offensive and unpleasant to him. So Philip burst out with anger and went on, full of rage, to meet another of his brothers, who had always been a source of consolation and happiness to him. Yet even this man answered him gruffly.

So Philip ran back to the chapel, cast himself before the statue of Christ and said “O Lord have I not asked you to free me from this anger?” And the Lord answered “Yes, Philip, and for this reason I am multiplying the occasions for you to learn.”

“Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15)

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Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. — Second Vatican Council

Every married couple is called to transforming union with God as a couple.

The heart of the bond of marriage teems with divine fire, as it is “what God has joined” (Matt. 19:6). From the moment the couple’s free consent is exchanged in the marital promises, God’s immediate act of joining unrelentingly commences as a sustained, constant, permanent, dynamically erupting in each new moment of married life, until death dissolves the nuptial bond.

Between husband and wife, God acts as a centripetal force, as His unity is now theirs. The three-in-one infinite dynamism of God, the two-in-one infinite dynamism of Christ’s human and divine natures, and the two-in-one dynamism of Christ’s covenant bond with the Church are sacramentally unleashed all at once in the married couple. The rest of their lives are spent recovering from the impact of these three mysteries that are called to embody as two-in-one flesh.

St. John Paul II remarkably described Christian marriage’s dynamism as “itself a liturgical action glorifying God in Jesus Christ and in the Church.” Mind blowing! My wife and I at every moment are invited to be con-celebrants of a ceaseless nuptial “liturgy” — liturgy here being defined as the full activation of the three mysteries in service to redeeming the cosmos.

In us, Patti and Tom, God longs, loves, desires to be given full freedom to do His work of joining, of stitching together, of reconciling, of uniting heaven and earth in, with and through us. Every tiny act of love-saturated synergy between us unleashes on creation the full power of the crucified Bridegroom of humanity.

Supine.

Our bond exists to permit God to sweep all things up into the eternal wedding feast of the slain Lamb and so heal a fractured world.

In light of that, Cardinal Arinze said to me in 2010 after I asked him how I could be more effective at my ministry as a teacher in the Church, “You want to save the world? Love your wife. Love your children. Everything else is a distraction.”

The married couple’s mysticism is always a nuptial mysticism. Husband and wife, precisely as oned, are “caught up” into the triple white-hot core of Mystery: the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union and the Christ-Church covenant bond. Their journey to God is now no longer possible solely as individuals, but only as a couple. To seek escape from that is to seek union with God apart from the covenant demands of love. Their journey to union with God can no longer be thought of, acted on, sought apart from their spouse. Even if the spouse of a believer has no faith, the vocation remains exactly the same, or better, is intensified in its cruciform redemptive character:

For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. — 1 Cor. 7:14

My primary Way to God is my wife. Period. No other aspect of my life, work, relationships, religious activities rivals or surpasses her in importance. If I am saved, I am saved primarily by how I love God in relation to my wife, and how I love my wife in relation to God. If am saved by how I love my children, it is only in relation to how in parenting I have loved my wife. Love for my parents, friends, co-workers are saving only in right-relation to my wife. God’s joining makes Patti, at every moment, my vocational axis, my magnetic pole.

Apt it is that St. Paul (Eph. 5:21-33) chose to describe this radical vocation vision of marriage in terms of the love manifest on Golgotha. Nowhere is the work of repairing a shattered world said to be easy or breezy. East of Eden, the way home is narrow, messy and hard.

There is a man who lives not far from our home, whose wife is completely disabled, bedridden. He has dedicated his life to full-time caring for her. It’s just stunning, as all such things are. Once when I saw him in a local supermarket, we chatted about various things. Then I asked him how his wife was. After filling me in on a few details, he said, with the starkest sincerity, “She’s my life. It’s why wife and life rhyme, I think.” He chuckled.

I whispered under my breath, “Even a measure of that for me, Lord, please.”

His life, her life, their life, divine life. One life. One love. Forever and ever. Amen.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst

First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. The fact that God can make Himself present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. — Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

I am teaching a class on prayer this semester, and it’s shaking me to the core.  Joseph Joubert famously said, “To teach is to learn twice.” All teachers worthy of the name would wholeheartedly agree. But I would add that to teach theology is to enter into the judgment of God, for when you appropriate the mysteries of faith by means of understanding, Jesus’ words come alive deep within:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. — John 3:20-21

The beauty of God’s judgment is that it is always ordered toward salvation, for He always exposes guilt and darkness and sin in order to heal and forgive. In light of this, we can see that one of the primary goals of prayer is to permit God to reveal us to ourselves, to expose our deepest inner life to the light, to permit God to carry out His judgment in us now (John 12:31), so that He can rescue us from all that keeps us from being free to live as His image and likeness in the world.

And this leads me back to the quote I began with above. Prayer, Bloom reminds us, is in the very first instance an act of giving God absolute permission to be Himself. Letting God be God. Allowing God the freedom to act in us as He pleases, when He pleases, and to do all He pleases in us and with us. God will not be manipulated, coerced, bribed into doing our will, serving our preferences, demands and whims. God is not our lackey, ready to do our will.

And He reverences us in the same way, exacting no response from us by force, coercion or violence. He seeks instead to evoke a response from us by Himself suffering violence to manifest fully — shockingly — His gentle open posture toward us. “Come to me” is not a crushing command, but an open invitation. In this sense, God chooses to approach us in those most evocative “spaces” that expose our inner yearning, to attract us to Himself — silence, darkness, absence. In these, God dwells most fully. God inhabits the parched deserts of this world, where the thirst of humanity grows to infinite proportions.

Only under the forms of infinite thirst are we capable of receiving the Infinite wellspring worthily.

God does not demand to be longed for, loved and desired. God, as St. Maximus said so magnificently, “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.” Jesus also says, “Blessed are those who hunger…for theirs is the kingdom…” In prayer, divine hunger meets human hunger. And while our hunger may at first glance seem to be a mere absence of God within, an emptiness, in reality hunger is the presence of God under the form of our relentless hunt for Food.

And the Cross — O foolish wisdom of God! — becomes the moment of capture, of slaughter and of feasting on God-with-us in the silence, the darkness, the absence.

 

In Christ Alone

The theological virtues [of faith, hope and love] relate one directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object. — Catechism #1812

I wrote in my journal back in 1990 that my spiritual director said to me, “You know, Tom, what is a good test of whether or not faith, hope and love have found a home in you? When all have failed you, without exception, and yet you retain joy in your commitment to remain faithful to Him. Only then do you really know God is your Rock.”

Then he added, “But this is a grace that must be begged for, over a long period of time. Grace isn’t automatic, God isn’t a slot machine. Yes, it’s freely offered, but is received only at great cost. I have begged for 40 years as a priest, and have begun to sense now they are finally beginning to take hold in me … I love to say to God, “If you left me to myself, Lord, for a even a moment, I would be faithless.”

Marriage and the Subordinate Clause

Today the (in)famous Ephesians reading finds its way into Mass, with its household “subordinate clauses,” which address husbands and wives in chapter 5, and children-parents and slaves-masters in chapter 6. St. Paul (or his disciple) offers, in these two chapters, a vision for the difference Christ makes in the organization of a traditional Greco-Roman household.

What is so often noted are the Greco-Roman elements that grind on our modern sensibilities,

“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” … “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

What can easily be missed in this are the stunningly subversive Christ-twists added in by Paul. These seemingly subtle insertions radically reconfigure the way this traditional household order is to be understood. To a non-Christian Roman citizen, these lines would have been jarring,

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” … “Masters, act in the same way toward [your slaves], and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven and that with him there is no partiality.”

We might say, in short, that these Ephesians passages insert a radical mutuality between woman-man and master-slave that is not present in Greco-Roman society. This is what is meant by the introductory Ephesians 5:21 passage, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In the ancient world, these relationships were substantially unilateral ones, with the balance of power massively favoring the husband and slave owner.

What Paul argues here is that, when the agapē-love revealed in Christ crucified enters into human institutions, as when it enters baptismal water or eucharistic bread-wine, it utterly transforms them into something new.

Like a doting grandmother that loads her grandchildren up with hyperglycemic sweets and then leaves it to the parents to endure the volatile consequences, St. Paul loaded the Ephesian Christians up with these volatile hyper-agapē commands and then left it to the later Church to decipher and harness the consequences.

St. John Chrysostom attempted this in his homilies on Ephesians 5,

There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, the source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience.

What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of the husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he live with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

It is difficult for us to appreciate just how unheard of this way of thinking was in 4th century Roman society — which we are constantly reminded of when we read St. John and are amazed at how many times he has to warn husbands to stop abusing their wives.

My favorite line in today’s reading, though, is 5:28,

He who loves his wife loves himself.

This is a twist on the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which makes clear that the commandment means not that self-love is the model for love of neighbor but that your neighbor is your self. “Another self,” you might say, meaning that what you do/don’t do for them you do/don’t do for yourself.  To murder is to commit suicide. Their good is your good, and their suffering is your suffering. And, contra Cain, you are your neighbor’s keeper.

In this sense, marriage is the most extreme form of neighbor love as the two become “one flesh,” i.e. the absolute renunciation of all “private property” before the spouse. And so we have in Song of Songs 6:3, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Which is why Paul says (!) in 1 Cor. 7:4,

For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

Marriage is meant to be a singular prophetic sign that models in extremis, “in the extreme,” for all humanity, and for the church (Acts 4:32!), the way love of neighbor works. Marriage is the supreme school of love for children, for extended family, for the local community and church. Marriage is meant to be the leaven that heals a fractured humanity, that models reconciliation among those who are estranged, that witnesses to the authentic meaning of unity-in-diversity, that offers an example of long-suffering patience between very different people, and that teaches self-sacrifice in the face of suffering, tragedy and hardship.

Marital love stands at the core of God’s redemption of creation and exists for the life of the world, which is why Christ made it a grace-drenched, life-giving, mercy-full, cross-bearing Sacrament. Marriage is “not for me,” as Seth Adam Smith famously said in 2013, but is for my spouse and children, for the church and society. Marriage is love lived “on behalf of all and for all.”

May it be so for all those called to this most exalted and noble form of divine and human love. Amen.

“Sing to us,” they said, “one of Zion’s songs.” — Psalm 137:3

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I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down,
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting-place,
And He has made me glad.

Once when I was beaten down and discouraged, I sat in the chair across from my wife and couldn’t speak. I said, “I just need to have you with me for a bit, but I can’t talk.”

So we sat, probably for thirty minutes. Then she just started to sing “I heard the voice…” to me. It was so consoling, better than talking. Music has the power to go straight to the center of the soul. Ephesians 5:18-19 suddenly made fresh sense to me,

…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…

What a beautiful way to pray for someone, singing to them. I also think of the time when my wife Patti sang to Fr. Jim Polich while he was in a coma, only hours before his death in 2011. She sang these words as she caressed his forehead,

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling for you and for me
See on the portals He’s waiting and watching
Watching for you and for me
Come home, come home
Ye who are weary come home
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling, “O sinner come home”

It was so intimate, and the three of us who were in the room with Fr. Jim could feel Jesus’ presence very powerfully. It was so clear to me — she had welcomed Him with her song, and He showed off His presence, coming to take His servant.

The other day, a dear friend of mine sent me a song to listen to with this line prefacing the YouTube link,

For when you have 6 and half minutes to soak in this song:
“I abandon my addiction to the certainty of life.” I’m done…

It had been a long day, filled with lots of work and intense, very draining conversations about ecclesiastical dysfunction, abuse and scandal, and the proper response. As I drove home that day, I had nothing. I prayed free-form and just poured out to the Lord my muddled state of mind in fragmented phrases and words. As I prayed, I asked for greater clarity. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I recalled a friend, who knew Mother Teresa well, telling me about her response to a man who had asked her to pray that he would receive greater clarity as to what God was asking of him. Evidently, Mother responded,

I have never had clarity. I will not pray for that. Instead, I will ask that God give you trust. Here, we do not have clarity. Here, we only have trust in the mystery of divine Providence. We do what we can with the little we know.

After I got home, I made dinner for the children. Then I checked my email and found this song waiting for me. After listening, I said aloud, “My, Lord, you sure like answering prayers I don’t much like.”

So grateful my friend chose to sing to me.

Priestly compassion in a time of scandal

It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. ― Pope Benedict XVI

This priest is the epitome of a man capable of genuine compassion, who refuses to withdraw from painful reality. Refuses to hide behind pretense. A voice and face of hope in a hopeless place. A voice and face of priesthood soaked in Peter’s tears.  Fr. Mike Schmitz, thank you for who you are.