Carrying, being carried.

[this is a re-post from 2014]

Years ago when I did chaplaincy work in a nursing home in Connecticut, there was a woman named Marge I would visit every weekend and bring Communion to. She was bed ridden, and depressed. Alienated from her children. She said she felt alone and useless, like an unwanted burden. It was so painful to witness, and as a newbie in that world I had no idea how to practically help her.

For the first weeks, I just listened to her. But one day, I felt inspired to share with her a Russian proverb I had learned from some parishioners at my dad’s Orthodox church: “Old age is for prayer.” The Siberian woman who first shared it with me added,

When you’re young, life is busy busy, and you have difficulty finding time for prayer. But when you’re my age, God frees you so you can dedicate great time to prayer, and season it with your aches and pains. These 5 words [old age is for prayer] are like the 5 stones David went against Goliath with. We elders may seem frail, but in God’s eyes we are mighty. Elders hold up the world.

I began to ask Marge to pray for a host of specific intentions every visit, and then would report on the intentions each time I returned. One time, I said (according to my journal),

By praying you carry people to God who can’t carry themselves. I know you’re sad because you feel you’ve been dropped by your children, and because you now need us to carry you. But how many times in life did you pick other people up and carry them? [she said, “Lots.”] Would you want them to feel useless because they needed you? [she shook her head]

Your body is frail now, but God has given you a powerful spirit so you can lift others up in prayer. You’re lifting me up for sure! Giving into depression is giving up on your spirit’s power to lift up. Sometimes in life our call is to carry others in love, but other times it’s to be carried in humility. Mostly, it’s both, and both make the world better.

It was amazing the positive effect this idea had on her over time. Before I moved away, I went to say goodbye to her. She said with great emotion, “Thank you for carrying me, son.” I said, with equal emotion, “Same. In heaven, you’ll see just how many people you helped, Marge.”

Like being for the first time seen

“It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” ― Annie Dillard

Only twice in my life can I say that I had the sense of someone looking into my soul through my eyes. One was back in 1991 with an elderly woman who was a Holocaust survivor. She was unquestionably a mystic, a person whose life was highly porous to the spiritual world. She had suffered greatly in her life. A priest I knew connected me with her, and offered me an opportunity to pray alone with her. It was at once terrifying and thrilling.

She took my hands into hers and prayed for me to God the Father. As she prayed, she mentioned in vivid detail an event from my childhood that was very difficult and, looking in my eyes, said, “God wants you to know He saw what happened to you and was with you. And wants you to know that He will bring great good from what you suffered. But first you must forgive and you must give it to Him. Only then can He bring good from it.” Then she said, “Through the cross to the Father.”

Needless to say, I was stunned and shaken. I had never encountered anything like this in my life. But what stood out most to me was that awareness of being “seen into,” of being known in such detail. How can I best describe it? It was like the feeling of being intensely loved by someone who really cares about you, and having them ask you to reveal some painful memory to them. You feel safe letting them in, not violated or ashamed, even though you’re absolutely vulnerable.

And to receive counsel to “let go and forgive” from a woman who had endured what she did?

When I shared this with my spiritual director later, he said, “Well, remember, mystics simply remind us in an extraordinary way what is already ordinarily the case. Granting God admittance to your deepest self and allowing Him to see you is prayer. He doesn’t want to know facts about you, He wants to know you. To get into your stuff and just be with you. If you give it over, as she said, He can recycle the raw materials of your soul into treasures that enrich others.”

Then he said, “Now all that’s nice, but it’s had its effect. Let it go. Don’t focus on the extraordinary details and do the hard work of the cross now. And remember, this didn’t happen because you’re special, but because the people who rely on you having your act together are…”

Easy to Please

Inside the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ.

Though Jesus Christ is very hard to satisfy, He is very easy to please. Think of that and it will help you a little. He is very easy to please, but very hard to satisfy. If you will but let Him in, and you have not much to put on the table. He will be so pleased, if it be but a cup of cold water that you can give him. Let it be something genuine, something real. – George MacDonald

During a major transition in my life years back, I was in a dark place. I felt alone, adrift, a failure. As so often happens with people of faith, I projected my own warped sense of self onto God and assumed God’s view of me simply replicated what I felt about myself. If I felt good, God was pleased; if I felt bad, God was displeased. It’s a twisted game, and it made me withdraw from prayer, posture myself in self-defense against God and hide.

During this time, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona with a friend. We decided to take a day-trip to Sedona to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross. As I sat there in the quiet, looking at the spectacular view, I felt a strange sense of what I can only describe as “home.” I wrote in my journal that night, “Today I finally sensed God with me, and it didn’t evoke pain. I sensed powerfully He was a rock, an immovable lighthouse, faithful no matter what. Small insight, vast implications.”

We traveled back to Scottsdale that evening, and the next morning I went to Confession at a local parish. After I finished confessing my sins, the priest said,

Let me read you something from 1 John. Whenever our hearts condemn us, we have to remember God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything [3:20]. You clearly want to do God’s will, and he knows that. Know this: God is so pleased with your desire to please him. I can sense it. He is grateful you are here today giving him your sins and fears. God is grateful. Isn’t that a beauty to behold?

As I write these words, I realize I cannot convey the power they exerted in me at that moment. He spoke them slowly, with intention and sincerity. His words seemed to emanate straight from the mouth of God. For my penance, he said, “I want you to go outside the city tonight if possible and find a place where you can look out at the stars. Allow the immensity of the skies to overwhelm you, and then remember the God who made all of that loves you, tiny as you are, like that.”

That was a turning point in my life, and I came out of hiding. I had come back home. Years later, my wife said something that brought me back to that moment. When we were discerning whether or not we should leave Tallahassee and move to Iowa, I told her, “I don’t feel right taking you away from a place that’s been your home for almost 30 years.” She took my hands and said, “Wherever the will of God takes us is my home.”


Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century.

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.

One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,

The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As Godbeing-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.

My God.

God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.

What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.

About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.

That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”

Crucified on a Crutch

I have always found it odd and even comical when the Christian vision of eternal life is described as “a crutch” or “cheap solace.” After all, according to Christian belief the first thing awaiting us beyond the gates of death is God’s judgment. On the contrary, isn’t “cheap solace” precisely the notion that death is the end of everything and we don’t have to answer to anyone for our lives? ― Tomáš Halík

Yes. Yet, Christians who profess belief in just such a “crutch and comfort God” give credence to this claim. This creed sounds something like this. We believe in a God who is necessary to profess only when human power or explanations fail; a “God of the gaps.” A God who is on the side of our ideologies and partisan politics. A God who exists to make us feel good and give us what we want. A God who canonizes our preferences and choices. A God who looks kindly on the misdeeds of the Generally Nice. A God who admits all into eternal reward without cost or distinction. “A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross,” as H. Richard Niebuhr famously wrote.

We believe in a therapeutic God who mostly looks like our human egos, writ large.

But Judaism and Christianity certainly propose no such vision of God. And when He came and confronted our diverse projections, He suffered our violent rejection.

I was listening to a lecture by Iain Matthew on St. John of the Cross, in which Matthew makes clear that for St. John, approaching the God of Jesus Christ poses to us one core challenge: hand over your possessions, your relationships, your past, present and future, your mind, memory and will, your good and evil — your entire life — to God’s total deconstructing and reconstructing action. Surrender, be crucified, die, rise, be made wholly new, i.e. capable of loving like Jesus on the cross.

And if you pass beyond the gates of death in His grace, not having fully embraced this radical purgative journey, God Himself will lead you through it as you near His absolute unyielding Presence as infinite truth, justice, love, mercy.

The peace we seek in God is a peace that only comes to us “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). A costly Solace, crucified on our crutch.

So yes, indeed, there is comfort and solace in such final peace, but only for those ready to sell their idol factory, go through radical detox and finally become the image of God.

Dream On, Holy Family!

Holy Family with Saint Anne – El Greco.

When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching — they are your family.   ― Jim Butcher

Holy Family. What a majestic, mundane and messy feast. Patti and I were talking this morning about the Holy Family iconography that edges toward idyllic, and how we would love one with Mary yelling at Joseph or Joseph spanking Jesus. Really, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

I don’t have anything theologically substantial in mind, so will share a story that came to me while Patti and I were talking.

I know a family in an unnamed location, married two dozen or so years, with several children in a fairly small house. They represent many of the family “goals” Patti and I aspire to in a wonderfully real way. Their kids are wildly different, with lots of talent, and some have really tough problems. The couple’s marriage has been a perpetual firestorm, marked by stories both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The wife likes to joke, “When we got married, I didn’t realize he was gasoline and he didn’t realize I was a match!”

Here’s what I consider their genius. The parents wrote up a family mission years ago — get this: “We will love each other extremely, every day and forever through thick and thin, and send our children out with the best we have to better the world.” And that mission shapes them every day. Their house is always filled with activity and new faces, antiphonal yelling and laughter, arguments and forgiveness, tight embraces and flying dishes, music and more laughter. They ban all technology from bedrooms or family activities.

The parents don’t feel compelled to craft a perfect public picture of their life, but they always celebrate their kids’ achievements, don’t fret over their failures and problems, and never throw their kids under the bus when they talk about the family tough stuff with outsiders. They’re faithful Catholics but not pious, they pray before every meal and at bed, are activists more than contemplatives, and their house is messy without apology.

All of this I find rare in a package.

But my favorite thing about them is summed up well in something the dad shared with me last year. He said something like, “The most important part of family to me is giving everybody a safe place to dream about their future. To be hopeful no matter what. To think big about what God wants. If you’ve got that, you’ve got enough to do the rest.” He said his own experience of childhood, which was very repressed, joyless and oppressively controlled, made him promise himself he would never pass that on to his kids. When he told me this, he said, “You know, I want our family like that Aerosmith song” — and then he sang, “…dream on, dream on, dream until your dream comes true…”

Like this family…

Will it.

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Will it.” — St. Thomas Aquinas‘ response to his sister’s question, “How does one become a saint?”

There are two heresies that Christians tend to succumb to: salvation is my work (Pelagianism), salvation is God’s work (Quietism). Orthodoxy is found in the mystery between these two extremes, as salvation is a theandric synergy, the co-working of man with God, grace and free will, fully God and fully man. In other words, salvation is Jesus, who is the redeemer and perfecter of the both/and.

Asceticism, which is a life of self-mastery ordered toward the cultivation of theological (faith-hope-love) and moral virtue (prudence-justice-temperance-fortitude), infuses each new day with a fresh resolve to be holy and a fresh plea to God, “Make me want to be holy!” The ascetic’s goal is to have the soul of the psalmist:

O God, you are my God; at dawn I seek you;
for you my soul is thirsting.
For you my flesh is pining,
like a dry, weary land without water (63:1-2).

Holiness is the demolition of every attempt to domesticate God, to make Him our lackey, or to quarantine Him in a safe zone so He can’t enter those spaces where we are vulnerable. In Scripture, the holiness of God is synonymous with dangerous. To approach God is supremely risky, as no one escapes from an encounter with Him alive. We must die to Old Man Adam to enter into His presence. Per crucem ad Patrem.

Let me tell you, if you do this every morning to launch your day, and really mean it, you will be amazed what happens. What happens? God’s mostly imperceptible, occasionally reprehensible revolution. G.K. Chesterton, writing of St. Francis’ stripping naked in the public square, said that “the transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution.” A turning away from comfort, satiety and mediocrity, and a turning toward “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

So, a good New Year’s resolution? Will it. Plead to want it. And then go and set the world on fire…