Mystics in the Yuck

Tapestry of Nativity in the nave of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France.

Since “the human person has an inherent social dimension”, and “the first and basic expression of that social dimension of the person is the married couple and the family”, spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family. Hence, 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. — Amoris Laetitia #316 (Pope Francis)

This is my favorite passage in all of Amoris Laetitia. I thought of this today because this time of year tends to bring out the best and the worst in family life, and because I had a conversation with a friend this week that included an amazing insight she said I could quote. She has tons of family issues — addiction, disability, divorce, unemployment, just to name a few. As we talked about these various trials, and the impact they had on her, she said something close to this:

But you know, Tom, I was praying the other day asking Jesus how I was supposed to find Him in all of this mess, as I just could not quiet my soul enough to get into the season and pray deeply. So much yuckiness. I was so incredibly frustrated. Like I wanted to either run from my problems or from God. But on Christmas eve I felt Him say to me, as I sat in the pew with my restless children,

“Child, in the unrest, fighting, turmoil you accompany my Family well in these days. I was conceived amid suspicion, rejection and fear, born homeless, hunted by Herod, welcomed by a massacre and sent into exile in Egypt. My mother and father found me dwelling in the midst of these un-ideal circumstances. Found joy. I chose to begin my life there so I could be closest of all to suffering families. So there, smack dab in the middle of your trials, is where I feel most at home. Welcome me and you will find me. It’s in these tangles that I love to weave my most beautiful tapestries. But you’ll have to wait until the next world to see it finished.”

Is that not stinkin’ awesome?

It is.

And, as “Is that not stinkin’ awesome?” is a loose rendering of Mary’s Magnificat, let me leave you with that song about the God who loves tangles:


“And a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)

On Christmas day, I called a friend of mine from many years ago, whom I have written about here before. She worked in pastoral ministry for decades, with a special focus on the home-bound and those in nursing homes. I’ll call her Mary. Mary is magnanimous — “big souled” — and a brilliant woman who is open to the Spirit in ways I rarely ever see. In particular, when she speaks of her experience of God (which is often mystical) it is actually very difficult to notice she is talking about herself at all, as she sees all the graces she receives as always for and about others. It’s really amazing. I know many people who talk about their personal experiences of God, some mystical; but very few people I know describe the graces they receive in such a naturally selfless, other-focused way. If Christian mysticism can easily devolve into Mist, I and schism, this woman was a genuine Christian mystic, the real-time antidote to pseudo-mysticism.

Reminds me of the way my moral theology professor once explained holiness: “Holiness is the perfection of charity, loving like God. And charity is being all-about the other’s well-being. So when they angels sing before God, ‘Holy, holy, holy’, what they’re really singing is, ‘Other, Other, Other.’ Sounds like a Trinity to me!”

In any event, I wanted to share one insight she gave me in our brief exchange.  Mary was in the hospital once for a procedure, and a young lady, who knew Mary had ministered to her father in the nursing home, found out from the parish that she was in the hospital for a procedure. This young lady’s father was dying. Well, Mary immediately got up and went to this man’s room. She said,

He was so agitated, afraid of dying. No one could calm him. When I visit the dying I usually bring a crucifix and tell them of Jesus’ nearness. But I sensed this man was too fragile, too afraid of the cross. So I felt God asked me to bring him Baby Jesus. So I told him, “Blessed Mother wants to give you Baby Jesus to be with you. He is so trusting and loving and gentle. All He wants to do is give you His joy and trust that all will be well in God’s hands and Mary’s arms. Let go.” Then I prayed over him and asked Jesus to reveal to him His childhood. And to St. Therese and asked her to lead him by the hand to the infant Jesus, so he could rest there with Him. And you know what, Tom? He calmed and relaxed and rested and a few hours later died peacefully.

At his funeral I imagined him playing with the child Jesus and laughing. Isn’t God so good, Tom?

Sometimes people who are afraid and are weak and vulnerable need God to come to them in the same way. Meet them where there at. And how good God is to have met us in every place we are in life. Don’t you think?

Yes, exactly.

Credo in unum Deum, “I believe into one God”?

“I believe…”

I am a Catholic and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist. — Flannery O’Connor

Back in the late 1990’s, the parochial vicar in our parish was teaching a course on John’s Gospel in the permanent diaconate program. He and I would sit together often and talk about Scripture, and one day he shared with me his enthusiasm over his discovery that when the Greek preposition “in” (in Greek, eis) is used in John 3:16, it’s actually more accurately translated with the more dynamic “into.” So:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes into him should not perish but have eternal life.

We shared our enthusiasm over the discovery of this polyvalent preposition! We theology nerds get excited about such things.

Though I’m no philologist, it seems to me that “believing into” Jesus captures more fittingly the faith’s radical and total claims on those who profess it. This makes faith less star gazing and more high diving, with all the attending elements of risk, thrill and all-or-nothing. The Greek word for baptism, baptizein, means to immerse or plunge into water. I think that’s cool!

Orthodox Baptism.

So when you profess your baptismal faith in the Creed you are really saying, “I believe into one God, the Father Almighty…” St. Anselm says, Credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order to understand.” Being Christian requires more than understanding of the Christian faith, which is why we do not say, “I understand one God, the Father Almighty…” Understanding simply means one has acquired a conceptual grasp of Christianity’s beliefs, while the act of faith means the Christian vision of everything is now my vision of everything. It defines how I see everything, is the standard by which I judge how I am to live and eat and spend money and have sex and speak and work. This is why Catholics who say, “the Church believes..” really mean, “I believe…”

In Jesus, God has opened Himself up to us in an absolute way, revealed Himself and invited us to enter into His inner life. The gift of faith is God’s invitation to enter, while the act of faith on our part is our acceptance of, and entry into, that gift; as well as our acceptance of all the claims “entry into God” makes on us. And this is why prayer is the handmaiden of faith, because prayer allows faith to come alive in us as our minds descend into our hearts, where God dwells, and there we encounter for ourselves face to face the One in whom we have believed (John 4:42).

At my Dad’s Orthodox church growing up, I used to love to chat with the Russians after the Liturgy in the parish hall. They had great stories! I would ask them questions about life under the Soviet Communist government, and they would share with me some remarkable stories. I remember in particular one older Siberian woman who was very sick on this particular Sunday. Coughing, red from fever, but there she was, standing for the entire 2.5 hours fully engaged in worship. This was back in 1989. I complimented her afterward that she persevered throughout the whole Liturgy in spite of her sickness. She said, with her thick accent: “It is nothing. Millions have died for our holy faith under the Soviet yoke. I cannot come to worship God for a little time on Sunday? This is nothing.” Then she continued, “You Americans are shallow because you do not know what it is to suffer. We Russians, we know suffering; and it can make you an angel or a demon. We have plenty of demons, because in USSR there is no love, and suffering without love makes you like black coal; but suffering with love like an ember. Faith means something only when it costs you everything.”


Years later I would read Fr. Walter Ciszek’s stunning spiritual autobiography, He Leadeth Me. He gave witness to the same faith proved by suffering hardship. Here’s a sample:

We said Mass in draftystorage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of consecrated wine produced upon the soul.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen remarked frequently that “theoretical atheists,” who reject the idea of a God, are not the greatest problem in the world. Rather, the real problem is with the practical atheists who believe in God, but are not into Him, living as if His existence were of no consequence.

I long to believe into God. I’m certain you do as well. Join me in praying for this to be so:


Mashley’s Silent Night, a capella, on a birthday


↑ My motto as Maria continues to grow older ↑

Ashley and Maria released a new cover again! Silent Night.

“Lovely and haunting. Two thumbs up!” – Dad.

AND today is Maria’s birthday! 17. A young lady with a soul as sweet as her voice. No, sweeter. Some descriptors: joyful, faithful friend, lover of God, soft light, encouraging, fun(ny), smart, honest, humble, artsy, soulful, night owl, cool, a family’s delight, caring.

But the subtitle of her preschool yearbook picture sums her up best:

Beautiful Maria.

My Morning Offering

My journal entry a few months ago. Pardon its form, as it is a meandering reflection:

If I could find a way to see this straight
I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now
And so I run now to the things they said could restore me
Restore life the way it should be. – Young the Giant, “Cough Syrup

I love praying the Morning Offering every day. “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you…”

It’s rich.

But I have always wanted to pray a morning offering that included the vision of the lay vocation to consecrate the world to God and, as Vatican II said it, “prepare material for the celestial realm.” In other words, a morning offering that included in its scope the full dignity of the baptized whom Christ has empowered to lift up, with His priestly authority, the whole of the material creation, along with all of its human cultivators, into the Age to Come; into the new creation.

With our lives joined to Jesus’ saving sacrifice by faith, hope and love, we save not only souls, but those souls’ bodies and the whole material universe implicated in those bodies. Just as with Jesus, our bodies will rise again in the new creation, and the matter, energy and forces that constitute our bodies now will not be left behind. Passing through His death and resurrection, they will be taken up into the new creation built on Jesus’ risen body. As my moral theology prof once said it: “Jesus still ate fish sandwiches after he rose.” Or again, Bishop N.T. Wright:

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. The resurrection, God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last and be enhanced in God’s new world.

What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.

When I came back to the faith, the priest that received my sacramental confession taught me the marvelous pious phrase, “offer it up” as a way to spiritually channel my frustration with life’s difficulties. I remember asking him, “And where does it go when I offer it up? And what does God do with it?” He explained the beautiful teaching that God uses our crosses to do good for others, as in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” But it was not until years later, when I was made privy to Vatican II’s vision of our lives as “preparing material for the celestial realm” that “offer it up” came to rock my world. It finally made sense for me of the 2-part plan of God: first earth, then heaven.

I’d always puzzled over why God didn’t just put humanity in the finished product of heaven, making us first go through this “valley of tears.” None of the responses I had heard — e.g. earth as Plan A, heaven as Plan B; earth as freedom’s “testing ground” — fully satisfied my puzzlement. Then one day … I received an insight that shed blinding light on everything (Acts 9:3). I remember very well the day I heard this simple medieval story in a public lecture by a philosopher:

There were two men hauling stones through a muddy medieval street. One was cursing and the other was singing. A traveler asked them what they were doing. The curser replied, “I’m trying to get this damned rock to roll through this damned mud!” The singer replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

I wrote:

My God That’s it! We’re building a cathedral! The Age to Come is a magnificent cathedral, a new creation which God only wished to create with us. Jesus is God co-creating a new world with man. So all that we “offer up” with Jesus is entrusted into the new creation “which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). “Kept in heaven for you” refers to the whole of humanity, as all the treasures we give God in our daily offering overflow back into this world and give others a foretaste of the Coming Age: “…no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).

Our present struggle to bring healing, reconciliation, peace, generosity, justice, love or beauty into this world now, God passes through His Fire to make of our labors and sufferings imperishable gold and He renders it life-giving for all (1 Cor. 3:15). “For justice is undying” (Wisdom 1:15). All the “material” we daily gather and offer up — the material of the new creation we are co-fashioning with God — returns back into this creation now, as God so desires, and consecrates it.

This, it seems to me, is why in the Mass the bread and wine are consecrated only after we have sacrificially handed over to God, in the Offertory, all of our life’s treasures. In Communion we recive not only Christ the Head of the Church, but the whole Christ, Head and Body, who comes to us laden with all of the riches He has been given by men and women of all time. In heaven, I hope we will be able to see clearly just how insanely interconnected we are to all other things, how God has arranged creation so that no one of us can ever boast of needing no one, of rugged self-reliance or having “gone it alone” (1 Cor. 12!). I think of the stunned awe I’ll have when God reveals to us that those we may have despised in life were the very ones He used to carry us along (Luke 10:25-37!).

I just thought: Muriel [A dear friend of our family in my childhood] told me she offered to God her terrible sufferings for me, and I have always believed my return to the faith in 1987 was, by God’s good pleasure, born of the fruits of her self-offering. God seems to love to draw His most magnificent creations out of the ugliest elements (her heart disease) of this fallen world. The Tree of Life is the Cross! O paradox!

I also think Indulgences are really nothing more than that: the new creation’s overflowing treasury of merits, amassed by Jesus and all His saints, flooding back into this world and readying it (us) for the life of the resurrection.

God gives us the dignity, as His image and likeness in the world, of co-creating our eternal Home with Him. And that new world, as was the case with the resurrection of Jesus’ lifeless corpse, is “made out of” the material of our broken, bloodied, wounded, death-riddled world. God takes that messy material, the “bread and wine” produced by our lives, and transforms and transubstantiates it in the Mass. The Spirit transubstantiates it by passing it through the sacrifice of the God-Man. This love remakes all things new, since the energy that suffuses the new creation is that selfless love that hung on the Tree in the new Eden; in Golgotha’s Garden (John 19:41).

As Paul says in Romans 8:18ff, this cosmos is one great labor and delivery room in which humanity, with God (Emmanuel!), is daily conceiving, gestating and giving birth to a co-fashioned new heaven and new earth.

And in the Mass, all the “rolling stones” consecrated by my humble offering, joined to the offerings of all others’ present, are presented with the Gifts of bread-wine-alms and laid on the altar to be consumed by heaven’s Fire beneath the hands of the ordained minister. There it is transubstantiated into the substantially new immortal Kingdom where neither rust nor worm can destroy the treasures we have stored up; where the justice of God abides.

Just last week I offered at Mass, in particular, our family day of service at the Feed Jesus homeless shelter, followed by an afternoon of board games and pizza and playing music and laughing until midnight. And then I recalled that father-daughter dance in 2009, and offered that as well. Those days. O Lord, I never wish to die. May they be there waiting for me, for us, for all, and for you, O immortal lover of mankind.

So here’s what I wrote for my own devotion. It’s very simple, not as rich as the other, but that’s as I like my prayer. Simple.

Morning Offering
Lord Jesus,
at the dawn
of this new day
make of my life
a living sacrifice
acceptable to you.
May my life
be at each moment
your Fire cast out
into the world,
consecrating all
to the service
of your Kingdom.
Through my life,
joined to your Cross,
gather the good
and the wicked into
your merciful Heart.
Through my life,
joined to your Cross,
transfigure all creation
into that new creation
where, with the Father
and the Holy Spirit,
all the lost are found
and you are all in all.

An Inconvenient God

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I remember this scene so well. Back in 1997, I was the Director of Religious Education at St Thomas More in Tallahassee. It was December 27, 1999 and I was offering an adult education opportunity that evening in honor of the Feast of St. John the Apostle. I was planning to cover 1 John, the letter of charity. I recall being very fired up as I prepared the lecture notes, and I was enthused to present my thoughts to all who might come.

As I welcomed people in the foyer area, a homeless woman dressed in tattered clothes, carrying Walmart bags, came walking in. I’d seen her countless times before outside, and she always asked for money. I was instantly irritated and thought to myself, “I don’t have time for this.” I said to her, “Look, I don’t have money and we have something going on now. And please don’t hang around asking people for money.” She just kept walking past me toward the bathrooms, and I went over to the Library where the presentation would be to get set up.

Yes, I felt a twinge of conscience, but forced myself to focus on my notes. As I was about to begin, this woman came into the Library and sat down in the back row. My God! I was overcome with conflicting emotions, but proceeded with the opening prayer and began. My lecture was on charity, and how belief in the Incarnation — God becoming human — required that we never separate love of God and love of neighbor. It was a powerful talk I had prepared, but as I delivered it I felt terrible shame; like every word I uttered was really, “Liar, liar, liar.” Yes, especially when I got to the crescendo of my talk as I quoted this text from 1 John 3:17; 4:20-21:

But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.

There she was, in the back. Listening. Looking at me. Right in front of me was the Truth, alive, with a face that was strangely merciful; which made it even worse. It must be what Purgatory is like.

After the lecture ended and the people drifted out, she remained. I avoided eye contact and tried to act busy, but she stood up and approached me. I looked up and her eyes were red with tears. She said, “Thank you. I needed this. I’d lost hope but tonight helped me feel better. God bless you.” And she walked out.

I was left alone in that Library. Stunned. The silence was deafening. I can’t adequately express how low I felt. But I no longer felt shame. I felt humbled, I felt instructed, I felt changed. A thousand things rushed through my head, so I went to the Chapel before leaving. I threw myself on the ground before the Tabernacle and begged God for pardon. And as I lay there, a thought came into my mind with such strength that it seemed to be a voice. It said:

Were that the Bishop, you would have greeted him with honor and joy. He has the dignity of Orders, yet she is greatest in my Kingdom.

That was all. It was clear to me, like Matthew 25 in living color. I shared this story with my Confessor, and he said: “That seems like God was asking you: Wherever you are, seek out the nobodies and make them your priority.” Then he gave me Romans 12:16 as the content of my prayer-penance: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

I will end with my recitation of the lovely prayer of St. Mother Teresa, “Jesus is.”

Mary: Will Soon Deliver You

“The Conception of the Virgin Mary”, i.e. Joachim and Anne becoming one flesh.

Re-post from last December

I read an article [last year] by a Catholic apologist who slammed the song, Mary Did You Know?, for what he considered a rejection of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the line: “…this child that you delivered will soon deliver you.” As I love that song, and find its lyrics theologically rich among so many impoverished Christmas songs, I was moved to respond to his argument. Here’s what I wrote him (edited some for this context, in purple):

I just wanted to comment briefly on your article that offers a critique of Mary Did You Know? I write with all due respect…

While I certainly agree with you that the song was likely written with a Protestant understanding of soteriology [theology of salvation] vis-a-vis Mary, in view of trying to honor the good that this song has done for so many people it seems that trying to re-interpret the song’s lyrics in a Catholic way is a more helpful approach. Using it as a catechetical moment and not simply as an easy apologetics slam dunk. I’d say:

“Mary did need a Savior, as her Magnificat says so beautifully sings (Luke 1:47), and as Pius IX said clearly in his proclamation of the dogma in 1854: “[the Virgin Mary,] in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin…” In other words, preservation is itself a redemptive act of God. As Catholics we confess that the saving act of Jesus on the Cross and in the Resurrection redeemed Mary preveniently, preventing sin from defining her being from the very beginning. She is not the Great Exception to salvation, an anomalous human being without sin, but she is the Great Exemplar, as God saved her from the taint of sin out of the superabundance of saving grace wrought by her as-yet unconceived Son. But again, Mary is not just some freakish time-warp in God’s action, but the preeminent sign of God’s saving economy that places the death and resurrection at the re-creating center of all history. 

How wonderfully does the song, Mary Did You Know?, place before us the paradoxical beauty and mystery of the time-bending Providence of the eternal God that has made Christ’s paschal mystery the saving fountain that flows back into history and forward to the end of time. Mary was indeed delivered by her Son’s death, in a supremely radical and singular way. And she, as New Eve at the dawn of the New Creation, was radically saved in a proto baptism. So she is a sign that we, too, are called to be saved to the roots of our being, i.e. to be made holy and immaculate. 

So yes: the child Mary delivered and held in her arms would soon, in time, save her. And this thought really dazzles my mind: she was permitted to witness with knowledge the very events that would make her who she was. Her Son was truly “God my Savior” (Luke 1:47) to her. He was the one who gave her the name that she joyfully spoke to St. Bernadette at Lourdes: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Not “I was immaculately conceived,” because she is who he made her: the immaculate image of the Great I AM, pure and simple (Col. 1:22). Wow […leaving rest out]

I have found over the years in my catechetical work in explaining the song in this way that people find it even more powerful, and are able to see better the difference between Catholics and non-Catholics in a more positive way, i.e. that Catholics and Protestants have a common understanding of Jesus’ universal work of salvation that applies to all humanity, Mary included. Yes, we have a different application of that understanding, but we must be clear that we all confess, with Mary, that God is her Savior. How good that this song’s text allows us to taste of the many sweet paradoxes that animate and enflame our mind-bending faith!