An alternative to anger

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This is a homily delivered by retired Archbishop of New Orleans, Alfred Hughes, on Sunday, June 5 at the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans. It was a masterpiece and so I asked him if I could post it here. He graciously agreed and then worked hard to turn his handwritten notes into this complete text.

He offers here a vision of faith-in-action that has the power to change our downward devolution into a culture of anger and division into an upward evolution toward a civilization of justice and charity.

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Tenth Sunday of Year – C

Michelangelo has captured in sculpture what has to be the most poignant moment in history: the widowed Mary, trying to cradle her crucified Son, after his body had been taken down from the cross. It is called the Pietà. (faithful devotion) Today’s Sacred Scripture focuses on two experiences of widowed mothers’ facing the death of their sons. Elijah was staying in the home of a pagan widow in Sarepta. Her son became deathly ill. He was given up for dead. Elijah restored him to full health.

In the Gospel, Jesus encountered the widow of Naim whose son had died earlier in the day and was about to be buried according to Jewish law before sun-down. Jesus intervened and with a word restored her son to life and to his mother.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that our country is like a widow who has lost a son? Our country, often symbolized by the woman depicted in the Statue of Liberty, seems to be widowed, cut off from our founding fathers. And now her children seem to have lost the life, liberty and happiness which that marriage once promised.

Our leading politicians have tapped into an angry reaction. And so we are led to believe that is the best we can do. Perhaps, we need to turn to angels of light rather than those of darkness. I propose today the inspiring memory of a New Orleanian woman, a widow who lost a child and provides an alternative vision. I speak of Margaret Haughery. She was born Margaret Gaffney in County Leitrim Ireland in 1813. At five years of age, her parents embarked on a perilous six month ocean voyage to America in the hope of escaping the dire poverty in which they lived.

They arrived in Baltimore in 1818. Within four years she lost both her parents to yellow fever.

As an orphan, she never received any formal education. She could not read or write. At twenty-one she married a sickly Irish man, named Charles Haughery. They moved to New Orleans in the hope that the southern climate would be more favorable to his health. But within a year, she lost bother her husband and her new born child, Frances. This plunged her into depression.

Margaret’s parish priest urged her to consider volunteering at an orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity, in addition to her work as a laundress in a hotel, to help counteract her depression. She quickly fell in love with the orphans. But she realized that the orphans and even the sisters often went without milk and bread for sustenance.

Margaret gave up her job as a laundress and with her meager savings bought a cow, and then a second. She began a dairy that provided milk for the orphans. She would peddle her milk from a cart to cover her costs and give the rest to the orphanage.

As her business grew, she made enough money to buy a bakery. Then she began to sell both milk and bread so that she could have enough to supply her orphans with free milk and bread. This illiterate woman became a successful entrepreneur in order to feed her beloved orphans.
Not only did she feed the children at St. Vincent’s Orphanage, but she founded four orphanages of her own to take care of the children orphaned by the Civil War and the yellow fever plague which ensued thereafter. The despised Northern General Butler, who oversaw Reconstruction in New Orleans, allowed only one person free access to the city: Margaret Haughery.

When she died on February 9, 1882, Margaret, Mother of New Orleans’ orphans received a state funeral, presided over by Archbishop Perché. This simple woman, who owned only two dresses, one for work and one for Sunday, left all she had to the orphans of New Orleans, black or white, Jewish, Protestant or Catholic.

Yes, there is an alternative to anger: strong, creative love, resistant to darkness and open to the light. Margaret Haughery was an heroic woman who let the light of Christ shine through her.

Isn’t that our call – yours and mine?

Hope in God

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There is so much deep contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God – so deep that it is painful – a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed – empty – no faith – no love – no zeal. Souls hold no attraction – Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His – so He has every right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, Come Be My Light.

Here are some unedited draft notes from a presentation I gave last Fall:

A friend of mine suffered for nearly a year with very deep depression. He said at one point to me:

The future totally vanished. Everything became dark. Nothing awaited me. Everything seemed empty of meaning. I could remember nothing good in the past, only regrets and failure. I could see nothing good in the present and had nothing to hope for in the future. No compass. No center. When it was over and I emerged out of the depression, everything looked different. What I used to hold most important now seemed peripheral, and what I saw as peripheral now seemed most important. Money and work success fell away to the edges, while relationships and God wound up in the center. Almost magically, like it just happened. Only when you lose all your props can you see what’s left is what matters.

After I spoke with him I wrote a slew of thoughts down in my journal, and then used them to build a retreat on hope. Here’s a few lines from my journal:

Hope is certitude that the future holds good in store for me. Theological hope, the infused virtue, sister to faith and charity, is the certitude of faith that the immovable ground of reality is love. That the promised future of God’s Kingdom, punctuating the Beatitudes, holds imperishable good in store for me. If I make the Kingdom my treasure, and the words of the Word my life’s foundation, joy remains, abides.

Joy is delight that springs up from hope’s certitude.

Hopelessness is not simply an absence of hope, but attachment to a form of hope that has been lost, that lacks enduring substance. Hebrews 11:1 — “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Substance! Literally “what stands under” you. Faith is substantial, stable, real, unshakable, enduring. It’s where I throw my anchor, center my identity, plant my many micro-hopes.

We have so many hopes! Some proximate, some remote. Some trivial, penultimate, some ultimate. Where are my anchors set? If you wish to see which hopes truly define you, watch what remains firm in times of adversity. When you lose everything, what’s left? Only what was substantial. The psalms are filled with this insight.

Substantial hope thrives in adversity. St Therese: When everything in you and outside you rages against hope and still you make an act of will to hope in God — then you have awakened within the theological virtue of hope, and not just optimism or well-wishing.

You can’t really call faith faith when you feel it’s all settled and obvious. When everything falls apart, the sun sets and night falls, faith begins. When you cry, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” or “How long, O Lord?”– only then can you meaningfully say, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” When you cry out in distress, sinking down with hands raised up, then you know you really believed someone was listening.

Hardship alone exposes and tests the structure of our inner hierarchies of hope: which hopes define me, which don’t. My spiritual director said to me once when I complained — “Why is this happening? Why is it so hard?” — “One day you tell me you begged God for greater trust, now you tell me He gave you a chance to trust and what do you do? Complain. What do you want?” I said, “I guess infused trust and not the virtue, or a reason to trust.” We laughed.

Sometimes hopelessness is necessary, as it can in short order expose the sandy securities we’ve built our lives on and lead us down to the bedrock. Trust is the hard virtue to acquire, but is absolutely necessary. Without trust, no one would dare hope. Babies stop crying when they cease to believe anyone will answer. When I cry out to God from the pit, decrying His absence, I have received a new and more profound mode of the divine presence: God under the from of yearning. Veni! Veni! O Come! O Come! Yearning stretches your capacity for God, and your capacity to give away what you receive.

Those who have suffered darkness are uniquely empowered to be missionaries of hope to those who live in darkness.

In the darkness illumined by faith I can reset my anchors. In the transition from sand to rock, it seems I almost lose who I am. But what I lose are the illusions. What I gain is the faith of the Cross. Try it now, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

There’s no turning back.

As I am

“The Good Samaritan” by Aimé Morot (1880). wikimedia.org

The church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. — Pope Francis

G.K. Chesterton once said that his umbrella helped reveal to him why he knew the Catholic Church was for him. He said that whenever he went to the non-Catholic churches, he would customarily leave his umbrella by the back door during the worship service. In these churches, his umbrella would always be there waiting for him when he went back out. But the first time went into a Catholic church to hear Mass, his umbrella disappeared from the back of the church. Someone had stolen it.

His conclusion? If the Catholic church offered such a generous and open doorway to the rabble, being a home for both sinners and saints, then he had indeed found a home where he could also fumble along into the Kingdom. He also added, “Every one on this earth should believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament have some object on the earth. Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given.”

A gentleman I knew in Florida, a cantankerous old salt, said to me once,

You know, it takes all the strength I can muster to hold back one biting remark. I used to get discouraged, but a priest once told me in Confession, “You know, Jesus looks on your one effort to refrain from an unkind remark as having far more value in His eyes than the thousand kind words spoken by someone who is naturally kind. God just wants small heroisms from you that no one will ever notice.” That made my life much more bearable.

In moral theology, the “law of gradualism” allows us to see that God takes human beings as they are, meeting them in their real-world circumstances with all their present strengths and weaknesses, and leads them along the way to take the next best step. The heights of holiness for one will look very different than the holy heights of another. In the realm of holiness, appearances are indeed deceiving. If we simply take the abstract demands of the moral law, or some single pristine image of mystical sanctity, and lay these on people without respect to who they are, with their real limits and varied life circumstances, we set them up for despair; or for cycles of guilt and shame; or for an unsustainable and delusional pursuit of perfectionism.

While we never bend the moral law to accommodate human weakness, we do confess faith in a God who bends down (descéndit de cælis) to meet the fallen sinner on the ground in order to love her into life, to heal her and raise her up. We have no need for God to canonize or condemn us, but only to have compassion on us so we can carry on each day with hope.

I need this God.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).

Pope Francis has given us this Jubilee year to remind us of this marvelous place between lax indulgence and priggish perfectionism called mercy. Mercy is the most human aspect of our faith. It embraces our broken human condition and empowers us to rise from the ashes. Mercy permits us to become more human, after the image of Christ who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Michael Coren’s description of Pope Francis’ shepherding style seems an apt description of God’s economy of mercy, which “sees the human within the theological, the person within the religious, the living, breathing, confused, confusing man or woman within the moral law.”

 

Give me wonder, O Lord

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Re-post from 2014

The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that existence is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is overflowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences. — Joseph Pieper

Someone asked me recently, “What’s most important to you as a theologian? What’s your non-negotiable?” My spontaneous response was, “Wonder!” They replied, “What does that mean?” I proposed an answer of sorts, but here’s what I jotted down later on my journal:

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For me, theological wonder is permitting faith to get the mind stuck in amazement, surprise, marvel and openness to the unexpected answers found in a life shot through with the divine. Answers that set the mind off-balance, i.e. re-calibrating answers.

In wonder there’s also an astonished gratitude over the sheer gratuitousness, the undeserved gifted-ness of everything. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, I experience myself as “being thrown” into existence. I was not, I never asked to be, but then found myself suddenly here. I am. I always find my “first person” vantage completely mind-blowing: what does it mean that I am me and not another? I used to think of this beginning at the age of 7 or 8 — it was my first taste of this mystery’s conundrum that leaves your “why am I me?” faced with no better answer than, “Gift.”

My favorite philosophical question is closely related, “Why there is something rather than nothing at all?” None of this world had to be, but here it is. Wow.

Existence is a ceaseless wellspring of fresh insight. Every day is as freshly new into existence as the light that followed the words, “Let there be…”

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird

Wonder allows you to return to this “first” moment, which is not “back then” but now. If you allow yourself to receive existence as a new gift in every moment, it will regularly re-set the limits of your constricted horizons. I need a poem here to help me. Per Letters to the Exiles, Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of your Longing”:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Wonder is giving over your hand to God.

Theological wonder also requires and gives birth to humility. The first stance of everything is not grasping and dominating and doing, but absolute receptivity. I am in every moment receiving from God the act of being. And, by humility, I know how much I don’t know. I know that I never, in any final sense, will arrive at the end of knowledge. There’s always more, a surplus of meaning to be sought after. This gives rise in me not to shame or despair or frustration, but to hunger and thirst. Desire. Love.

Knowledge without love is data, knowledge with love is wisdom. By wisdom I see how love coheres all that I know. By wisdom we can see that everything is a gift of love given for the good of all. The universal destination of goods. “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). All I am and have is meant for the good of all. I contemplate in order to share the fruits of contemplation. I am bright so I might enlighten. I learn in order to teach and give all I’ve learned away. Wonder makes the teacher’s greatest joy not being called wise but making wise.

I want to remain restless, unfinished. Though I wish to be grounded firmly on the rock of truth, I never want to ossify. I desire certitude, not hubris. While certitude confidently raises up its wide-rimmed chalice to be overfilled, hubris builds up roundabout itself an impenetrable fortress to remain safe.

I long to remain open to learning from anything and anyone, without prejudice. I aspire to listen closely, to look closely, carefully, with discernment. I hope to greet in each new day the feast of Epiphany; to live in a perpetual wow, imprisoned there, permitting faith to inflict serial shock on my mind. Leading me up a Mountain that admits of no zenith, Christ.

Faith-drenched minds seek what keeps all our liturgical orations so hesitant to “wrap it all up” — their codas are fearful of ending: in saecula saeculorum, “unto the ages of ages.” St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the verb epektasis as a refusal to punctuate the quest into mystery. Epektasis means something like “upward striving.” Mountain climbing with Moses. St. Paul uses a form of this verb in Philippians:

Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark (3:13).

How thrilling.

Theology boils up from within the open Heart of the God-Man, gushing out into all faith-disposed minds. Boiling faith inhabits understanding, stretching its present borderlands.

Faith stays in me the surge of sardonic cynicism that can so easily overtake Church-insiders (like me) who are well aware just how terribly awful baptized humanity (like me) can be. A theologian is preserved from cynicism only in the childlike mind of Christ. Guileless. His wonder poured from the cursèd Cross and filled the bowels of Hell, where He descended. He could not but preach God’s ebulliant [from the Latin ebullire “to boil over”] Gospel of joy and hope to Hell’s prisoners (Lk. 4:18; 1 Pet. 3:19).

So we get Christ-minded saints like Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in hell, and do not despair.” And we get Popes like Benedict XVI:

Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

Theologians are called to offer their living witness of hope in the midst of the Church. Their life should shout:

The farther you sink into the mind of Christ, the better, more joyful, more loving and hope-filled human being you become.

May it be so for me and all of us called to be theologians. Amen.

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

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Yes, the obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young, yet possesses a remarkable depth and authenticity. He is plagued by the anxieties and insecurities of our age, which makes him a powerful voice for the inhabitants of this age.

I was particularly interested when the interviewer asked him what the mission and purpose of Twenty One Pilots was; what explains the origin of their lyrics, their musical style? He struggled to answer, wading through the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans — and admitted these tempts him. But, he said, what really drives him is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. He said if their music lifted just one person up, making his or her life better and more full of joy, then that was the mission of Twenty One Pilots. “I don’t just want to entertain people,” he said, “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.”

There’s no doubt the Christian worldview inhabits the lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to speak with overtly religious language. He is very aware of the constraints of reaching a broad audience in a radically pluralistic world. His circumspect approach seems quite intentional. After listening to the interview, I wrote in my journal:

It’s like their music is composed and performed — “offered up” — on “the altar to an unknown God” St. Paul identified in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:23). It’s a natural space to plant faith in the midst of our increasingly pagan culture, without being preachy. It’s a place where faith can encounter, give voice to and respond to the great questions and anxieties of our day. Their (lay) genius, to me, is that they are out there in the midst of that culture, singing with abandon of and to an unknown, hidden and humble God.

I also wrote a poem in my journal after hearing the interview. It’s my summary take on what I see to be their artistic mission. If I could send them a message, which I have concluded I cannot, it would be this poem.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Voice of angst, prophets of zeitgeist
in authenticity, integrity unsacrificed
inscribing, singing a silent Christ
by twining faith in life, deftly spliced.

Rappers of deepest dark reality
facing who we are, we long to be
discovered by Truth who sets free
we, a restless, twisted humanity.

Not thru preaching, but evoking;
not thru imposing, but provoking
us to think thoughtfully; soaking
greying despair in colorful cloaking

by words that cut, yes make us bleed
though then only to heal and feed
souls yearning for an immortal creed
that won’t break the most fragile reed.

Your call and mission seem clear:
daring us hope in a world of fear;
outing a hidden God, so silently near
who whispers, “I am with you, here
wiping, drying, shedding every tear.”

 

Eating Flesh and drinking Blood

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Last Sunday we celebrated a great mystery of faith, the Holy Trinity. We pondered the beauty of its truth, and marveled that at the origin of all things — behind this world of death and sorrow — is infinitely selfless, joyful and outpouring love, God, who was revealed above all in a drained and exhausted Body. And we see that that image is our image, who we are meant to be. Trinity Sunday is a contemplative feast of gazing on what we wish to become: like the God of other-centered love.

But today we go even farther. We not only contemplate and confess the mystery of our Triune God, but we claim a divine command beyond belief (John 6:53): ingest the mystery of God.

No mere metaphor, but in reality. Jesus, eternal Word-made-flesh, commands us to devour, tear and shred (trōgōn of John 6:54) His Flesh and Blood, taking Him into our own flesh and blood.

Any illusion Christians may have that “spiritual” means non-material is dashed by this doctrine. Eucharistic Communion is nothing other than the coming together of the Incarnate God with our ensouled bodily digestive fluids. This is the spiritual mystery of the edible and potable Flesh and Blood of God.

Christian spirituality is not about rising above the body into some antiseptic, pure and bodiless spiritual world. Rather, it is about lifting up flesh and spirit together as a single spiritual sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). God so loved our material body — with all of its gross secretions, sinews and tissues — that He sent His Son to unite it to His own Person forever. God has joined matter so intimately to Himself in Jesus that it remains forever constitutive of who God is. The Son of God has a Body, taken from the humanity of Mary, and forever will. As moral theologian Germain Grisez once said to me when we were discussing the role of earthly goods in heavenly fulfillment, “Remember, in His glorified Body Jesus continues to enjoy cooking and eating food” (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:9-13).

I love that.

To this effect, a priest once said in a stellar homily on the Eucharist,

Receiving the Eucharist reverently is a matter of interior disposition, with faith, devotion, free from serious sin. But the manner in which we actually receive the Holy Gifts is really quite appalling, if you think about it. Saliva, chewing, swallowing, digesting. But of course this is no more appalling than the manner by which Christ became our Food and Drink — the Passion, with all its sordid details. This is my Body broken, Blood shed.

… And there’s something else remarkable here. All other foods say to us, in effect, “Take us in, consume us and raise us up to your higher form of life.” But to us the Lord says something totally new, “Take me in, consume me and I will raise you up to my higher form of life.” St. Augustine says, “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.” God, as it were, obeys the logic of nature’s food chain, and yet (as He always seems to enjoy doing) subverts, inverts it in the Eucharist, putting a final end to the death and violence of the whole process.

Fr. Aidan Kavanagh also captures the stark meaning of our Eucharistic theology:

Two main forces have traditionally balanced this tendency and checked its spread. The first has been the attempt at keeping Eucharist as “banquet or meal” in tension with a perception of Eucharist as “sacrifice.” The tension reminds us that, however elegant the knowledge of this dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, and in the slaughterhouse—amidst strangles cries, congealing blood, and spitting fat in the pan. Table manners depend upon something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge ignorant of these dark and murderous “gestures charged with soul” is sterile rather than elegant, science rather than wisdom, artifice rather than art. It is love without passion, the Church without a cross, a house with dining room but no kitchen, a feast of frozen dinners, a heartless life. The pious (religious and secular) would have us dine on abstractions but we are, in fact, carnivores—a bloody bunch. Sacrifice may have many facets, but it always has a victim

In the Eucharist, we recognize that “God is love” and “God is food and drink” are interchangeable definitions. God is a feeding God (Psalm 107:9) who makes Himself the “finest wheat” and “best wine” harvested, crushed, baked and fermented for us and for our salvation. Those who feed on God in turn become partakers in this facet of His nature (John 6:57), manifesting their “deified” state precisely by becoming feeders of the hungry and slakers of the thirsty (Mark 6:37; Matt. 25:35).

Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev said, “When you’re a Christian, bread for yourself is a material problem, but bread for my brother is a spiritual problem.” This is Eucharistic logic.

St. John Chrysostom also said,

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. For he who said, “This is my Body,” and made it so by His word, is the same one who said, “You saw me hungry, and gave me no food. As you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. back in the early 1990’s, I was entrusted with the care of a man in his late 30’s who was from Tallahassee originally. I’ll say his name was Richard, which it wasn’t. He was partially paralyzed from a stroke he had had while sleeping in an abandoned car during the winter. Thank God he was discovered before he succumbed to hypothermia, and was brought to the Sisters’ home to recover.

I had to feed him, clip his nails, brush his teeth, wipe the feces off his bottom and change his clothes. He had slurred speech from the stroke, so communicating with him was difficult. It was very hard work for me. Not simply because of the tedious repetition or unpleasant odors, but because it was pulling me out of myself. Up to that point in my life I had lived a largely self-centered lifestyle, meaning most of my decisions were not determined by someone else’s needs. No one depended on me or my care. And if they did, it was part of my job and I was being paid to respond. But here I was a volunteer, and here these people — this was terrifying — depended on me to love them, and to care about their hopes and fears.

I felt like the Lord was saying to me for the first time in my life, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:17-18). I would soon come to realize that adulthood is about learning to be taken where you do not wish to go, and there making of yourself a worthy sacrificial offering.

One day I was at Mass with the Sisters and the residents. Nothing unusual. That morning had been a difficult one, as I had to give Richard a shower. It was always a long, arduous and complex process. Far more humiliating for him than for me, I was sure. He was angry at something and very resistant that day. I couldn’t figure out why. So at Mass I was feeling agitated and sad about the experience. I wrote in my journal afterwards, “What the hell more does he want from me?”

Then the Words of Institution came along. Nothing unusual. But they were different this time. “This is my Body which will be given up…This is the cup of my Blood which will be shed.” I thought of Richard’s naked body, so vulnerable, soiled, partially paralyzed.

The Sisters taught me when I first arrived to reverence the residents’ bodies Not easy to do in a shower as you try to clean very private parts, and they are cussing you out. Sr. Manorama had said it to me even more plainly: “You need to reverence these men’s bodies like you reverence Christ’s Body. Even if they treat you poorly, maintain your reverence, as then Christ comes to you in His distressing disguise, as Mother tells us. That’s when He is closest, you know.”

I didn’t know. But that day at Mass I said to myself, “Yes, even then. Especially then. Amen.”

Bluebirds

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From my journal this past week while I was on a silent retreat.

It just so happened that this was the one “dead week” of the summer at the retreat house, so there is no one else here. I am alone. God, you know I love solitude. To be alone with the Alone. Thank you.

I got up today at 5:00 a.m. to pray before sunrise in front of this splintered, decaying, lichen spotted, vine covered, old rugged Cross. I find it absolutely gorgeous, for whatever reason. It radiates sacramental light. In that split open wedge near the top on the right, there are these bluebirds nesting. The pair faithfully flies to and fro, selflessly feeding their young. How astonishing to find such fragile, new life hidden in the crag of a inhospitable Cross. Psalm 84:3.

It’s so quiet now as I write.

“Sometimes quiet is violent.” — Twenty One Pilots, Car Radio

I find whenever I enter into days of silence like these, deep insights emerge. Silence excavates insights into myself, into God, into others, into the world. Some lurk darkly, others burn brightly; some brood with evil, others breed good; some taunt me disturbingly, others console me with calm. My frenetic life corks my soul, stuffing my ‘stuff’ in a cobweb-infested basement closet, inuring me from the stench of the garbage that lies within.

Really, who wants to deal with all that?

But silence leaves me no escape. My spiritual director told me to practice a listening silence. It overtakes me, it dares me to trust the knocking of an insistent Word. Listen, can you hear the rhythmic beat of His knock? Especially at night, in the dark. Fear: if I open, all the trash will come tumbling out everywhere. It’s all safely contained now, right? The house looks neat, save for that closet. Why do you knock there?

Silence lets me feel how just much pressure has built up on that door. I hate silence, I love silence. It repels, it attracts. It afflicts, it comforts.

“When peaceful stillness lay over all, and the night was half spent, your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from heaven’s royal throne” (Wisdom 18:14-15).

From His throne to my insignificant door? Opening. The Word has exposed the debris in my cellar: my many cluttering words; my piles of clever disguises; my pallid pretenses and unconvincing lies (especially the ones I tell myself); my evasive games; the dusty storms raging within.

And I see temptations unmasked. The tail of the serpent, nearly hidden, but… Damn, I thought I was managing fine. But now I see the dangers of my presumption, my arrogance, my illusion of complete control.

My holy hours these days in front of the Tabernacle are brutal. “A fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall” (Jer. 1:18). Transubstantiation is dangerous as hell, is so bloody, in your face real, unyielding to my fanciful whims. “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10). Yet, there’s no where to hide.

O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn
and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me,
your right hand would hold me fast.

If I say: “Let the darkness hide me
and the light around me be night,”
even darkness is not dark for you
and the night is as clear as the day (Psalm 139:7-12).

Silence is nakedness before You, stripped of all the garments of noise, the masks of pretense.

What can I see now? Here’s one…the Cynic has imperceptibly made inroads into me, stealing thrones within me, where Wonder once reigned supreme.

I fear this broken secret, this plundered closet will wreak havoc. The Judge is at the gate, condemnation awaits. Where do I run to hide?

Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream
Reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real

I could pull the steering wheel

Yes, that’s it. I’ll pull the steering wheel, take charge again, shut the door and bring an end to this dreadful silence. But silence peels the steering wheel from my fierce grip. All control on my life is attenuated, wrested by that Word.

I remain in silence. Abyssus abyssum invocat.

I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Oh my,
Too deep
Please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound

Yes, outer noise to quell the inner noise; outer order to compensate for the inner chaos. But there’s that immobile Cross there. I see chaotic order in that Wood. What if I allow that Wood into my closet? Or what if I could just go to sleep and forget it all. When I stress I want to take a nap. “Wake me up when it’s all over.” But the Word speaks,

“Keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mk. 13:35-37).

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

Faith invited Him in: O Word of the Cross, come into my mind.

I loosened my grip, opened my hands upward out into the silence. Waiting, watching.

The Word has entered in, seizing charge of my thoughts. As if from nowhere, certainly nowhere in my own wits, I hear: “Be still” (Mk. 4:39). Order, peace. Love has appeared at the center of things. Here, inside that split in the Dead Wood.

My accusers have gone.

“And Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. He straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.'” (8:9-11).

Love illumines darkness, heals infirmity, orders disorder, frees, gives rest, feeds and slakes. If peace is the tranquility of order, then love is the order. “Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:8).

“Every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). O Christ, who are the Captor whose bondage is freedom. Free me from every slavery and make me your liberator. Preserve me in inner silence, and guard my mind in the peace that comes through faith in you. Amen.