Spirituality of Offering

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I can’t sleep, so I will write…

I am preparing a talk for next week on (as always) a spirituality of the laity suited to their secular mission to “consecrate the world itself to God,” as Vatican II says it. Whenever I enter into this doctrine, it completely alters my experience of life for days after thinking it through in prayer. It’s like I’ve shuffled through the Wardrobe into Narnia for a time, and came back.

At the root of this spirituality, I am convinced more and more, is a “spirituality of offering.” This is in fact the sum and substance of our baptismal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), as priests’ mission is to consecrate the “stuff of life” and render it sacrificial, offering it up to the Most High. The whole spiritual life finds its vibrant epicenter here, as humanity was placed by God in creation to enact this most sacred transaction between heaven and earth. Being a unity of both matter and spirit, we are each a microcosm of two vastly different realms, perishable and imperishable. We are made of stardust stamped with the likeness of the Heavenly Spirit. Our bodies are the product of billions of years of cosmic star-death and resurrection, and as priests of the new covenant we draw this whole cycle of violent history into the Incarnate God’s own death and resurrection, that He might breathe peace on all things and transfigure them into the immortal glory of His divine-human life.

At the Transfiguration, Jesus, standing atop a high mountain to behold the vast horizons of creation, revealed in His priestly body our future glory. In Him, eternity has already penetrated into the very heart of the earth. He is the truest Heart of microcosmic Man, and in Him the divine Light blazes not downward on Him from above, but outward from within Him. Think of the image of the Sacred Heart. At the conception of God in the womb of Mary, the divine Fire moved from the foot of Sinai into the heart of the world. And those of us joined to Jesus by faith and baptism extend this conception of the divine Fire to the whole of creation (Mark 16:15) and permit it to soak deeper and deeper into the entire created order, penetrating even down into the dominion of hell with the dawning light of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The laity, called by God to sanctify the world “from within” by entering every corner of secular life – marriage and family, culture, politics, education, science, business, economics, etc. – effect this priestly transaction of consecration and up-offering by “doing the world” according the God’s will. Acting in justice and integrity, humility and courage, kindness and patient endurance; facing life’s hardships in faith; carrying out the works of mercy; spreading joy and hope; defending the defenseless and giving voice to the voiceless; and every other such manner of being upright in a fallen world – this renders the time and space we bodily inhabit, holy. “For justice is undying” (Wisdom 1:15).

Above all this offering is carried out in the spirit of ceaseless prayer, that priestly colloquy between God and man in which the Spirit is called down on all things and our sacrifice offered up to the Father in, with and through Christ. Creation looks to us, her priests, to voice her praise to the Creator and to rescue her from the bonds of death by joining her agony to our hope:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:15-19).

Every moment of history, every tiny plot of earth we trod longs to be claimed for Heaven by us who bear, on behalf of all and for all, the immortal Fire within. Who bear love. Next time you can climb a mountain, take these words of Rainer Maria Rilke with you and recite them loudly to all you see:

And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within – oh endlessly – within us! Whoever we may be at last.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

And then go to Mass and hand all of it over to the Celebrant, who will complete your consecration and offering, and then command you: Go, be sent! And gospelize the world some more…

“Pray out of your pain”

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Back in the late 1980’s, I attended an Orthodox church for Sunday liturgy fairly consistently. The congregation was composed of a wide variety of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Greeks, Georgians, Serbs and Russians. The vast majority were first or second generation immigrants from the Soviet Union, and many of these had fled religious persecution. The priest was second generation Russian. Being Roman Catholic, it was for me like being in another world each week I was there, both in terms of the lavish Eastern liturgy and the ethnic-cultural distance between me and them. And for all that I was greatly enriched.

One thing that came up frequently in conversation was the character of Christian faith in countries where belief was tagged with a high cost. People, especially the older women, would make me vividly aware of how different their view of life was because of all they and their families had to endure back in the U.S.S.R. I especially remember one conversation I had with an elderly Siberian woman. That day there was a visiting priest who was newly ordained, and he had preached a fiery homily on the upcoming Great Week (their Holy Week). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. After the liturgy in the social hall, I was speaking with this matushka and asked her if she liked his preaching. She said, with steely eyes looking straight into mine:

It was pretty. Yes. But he does not know of what he speaks. He has not yet suffered. You Americans, no offense, but you do not know how to suffer. You seem to see pain as something to run from. That makes you shallow. Pain is unavoidable and depth of soul requires suffering. It digs down, no? We Russians, we know suffering. And it makes of us both angels and demons, one or the other depending whether you have love or not. And we have many demons in Russia now because there is little love with the Communists.

Although at the time I found her words off-putting, over the years I see more and more the radical truth of what she said. I myself stood and stand indicted. I later shared her words with the Orthodox pastor at this parish and he said he considered this woman to be a staritsa (wise elder) and a saint. He said, “If you want to learn how to pray, ask her. She is prayer. I sought her out when I first arrived here, on the advice of the deacon, and she told me: ‘Father, when you can make your pain a prayer, when you learn to groan with the Spirit, to pray in agony with Jesus, you know pure prayer. Everything is to become prayer, but pain speaks to God most eloquently. Like arrow prayers. Don’t pray always your pain away. Pray out of your pain. Through your pain. Don’t fear it.” He then shared with me the quote from the Russian saint deeply loved in the Orthodox world, Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not.”

Fr. Walter J. Ciszek was a Jesuit priest who suffered unspeakable hardships during the 23 years he endured forced hard labor, psychological torture and abuse in Russian prison camps. His autobiographical book, He Leadeth Me, is a stunning spiritual treasury that I recommend to all who are trying to relate faith and suffering. I will leave you with a few of his words as a concluding meditation in keeping with the treasury of Russian spiritual wisdom:

Although, as God, he needed no glorification, as man, he did bring about the glorification of his human body through his final suffering. He rose because He died; he was glorified because he suffered. He could have had the glory and the peace and the unending joy in his body at any time, because he was God and he had a right to it. But the fact remains that he had none of these things until after he suffered. We have many, many examples from the life of Christ, but there is none greater than his suffering. He taught you and me how to live with it. If he cried, cannot we? If he showed hurt in his life, cannot we? If he begged to be relieved, cannot we? If he even complained to God, will God punish us if, in the midst of our hurt or pain, we complain to him, Our Father? No.

If we can surrender to such a prayer in truth, we can dare pray Psalm 22 with the Jews:

Trust in an unseen God-made-visible

sparechangenews.net

Each year, thousands of men, women and children are innocent victims of sexual and organ trafficking, and it seems that we are so accustomed to seeing it as a normal thing. This is ugly, it is cruel, it is criminal! I would like to draw on everyone’s commitment to make this aberrant plague, a modern form of slavery, adequately countered. Let us pray together the Virgin Mary to support the victims of trafficking and to convert the hearts of traffickers. — Pope Francis

I spoke with a woman not long ago who has worked with a faith-based outreach to teenage youth victimized by the sex-trafficking industry. I have read articles and listened to presentations on the topic over the years, but every time I meet someone who is personally involved in this kind of work it shakes me to the core. History has demonstrated again and again that there lurks in humanity a dark and perverse drive toward enslaving fellow human beings for pleasure, power and profit.

The Hebrew’s story in Egypt is humanity’s story, and the words God spoke to Moses from the Bush were spoken over all ages:

I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters;
I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them
out of the hand of the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:7-8).

The Hebrew story is also the Christian story, as these “words of God” became flesh and tented among us. Hear in this section of the Nicene Creed striking resonances of the above Exodus text:

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

In Jesus, God “became man” not only “in accordance with the Scriptures,” but in accordance with the the entire human experience — even into bowels of hell, as the Apostles Creed starkly puts it, “He descended into hell.”

This woman I spoke with said something really profound about these young people’s plight in relation to God:

It is difficult to trust in an unseen God when what is visible appears to destroy any chance of redemption.

As she shared with me over an hour and a half’s time the details her faith-based approach to this work, and some of the extraordinary stories of how it brings hope in a hopeless place, I remembered my own experience 25 years ago working with the Missionaries of Charity. Specifically, I remembered this one young woman I came to know who had been sex-trafficked and was dying of HIV-AIDS when I met her. She said that she believed God had brought her to live with the Sisters before she died “to protect me from the men.”

“To protect me.” That phrase burned itself deeply into my memory and convinced me with new force that this was indeed the core mission of the Church in the world, to be God’s rescue made visible and audible. To extend the Incarnation and be Yeshua, “Yah rescues.” And Yah, an abbreviated form of the divine Name, Yahweh, is etymologically derived from the Name revealed to Moses from the Bush, “I Am” (Ex 3:14). The rescuing God is, and He is with us saying to every Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

1 John 1:1-4 exquisitely captures this mission that flows from the Incarnation of the Word:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship [koinōnia] with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I know a man who had a “near death experience” after suffering a grave cardiac event in his early 30’s, and after he’d recounted to me the remarkable specifics of what he had seen and heard, he said: “I know this probably sounds like wishful thinking, but I am convinced that if everyone had one of these experiences, and saw and heard what I did, there would be no more wars or violence or starvation. When you’re there you realize absolutely nothing matters — and I mean nothing — but love.” Then he said, “But what I realized after this happened was that we already have all of this in our faith. But like Jesus said [Luke 16:31], it’s never that simple.” I added, “Yup, makes me think of G.K. Chesterton’s satirical quip, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.'”

The world is teeming with God’s glory, but sin and ignorance conceal its vision from our eyes, its music from our ears. Faith, hope and love give us the liberated, liberating capacity to see and hear again, and the imperative — “Go!” — to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, liberty to captives by declaring in word and deed what we have seen and heard. The church is, as I once said here, the manifestation of the eternal God’s irrepressible ‘freaking out’ in our history to build a home for humanity to dwell in with Him; in safety.

This woman I spoke with also said, “And everything we do is soaked in prayer.” Indeed. And so we cry out unsparingly day and night to God in the face of all forms of slavery, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” (Is. 64:1).

Through me.

Let’s try.

Faith Goes Public: ☨

The X-ray Telescope on the Japanese/NASA mission observing the full Sun. nasa.gov

One of my favorite aspects of writing this blog is the feedback that comes from you, the readers. I could collect those alone and publish a book of meditations called, “Mirrors of Faith: Reflections of the Faithful,” or some such. Some recent comments here and here are just two marvelous examples of the depth and authenticity of exchange. I had a dogmatics professor back in 1993 who said in one of his lectures on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, “Theology is at heart dialogical, a divine-human exchange of ideas among both friends and opponents. It is out of dialogue that God, who IS dialogue in His very essence, draws forth a surplus of truth.” Since those days, I have striven to make certain that my thinking about divine revelation has been a dialogue with God, with the church, with family, with friends, with random people, with culture, with history, with texts, with nature, with anything that presents itself to me.

This inter-relational dimension of faith is why small Christian faith communities are so essential for the flourishing of Christian life. Such intimate gatherings of the faithful together are sacramental encounters with God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, celebrated anywhere “two or three gather in my Name” (Matt. 18:20) — at home, in a neighborhood, in a parish, in a school, in a workplace, in a coffee shop, in a group text, in a public square. Communal faith seeking understanding. Anywhere, everywhere. Faith is essentially ecclesial and can only be had in communion, in conversation, in dialogue or in spirited disputation, both in private and in public.

A great challenge is that our culture straightjackets faith in radically private spheres of opinion, punishing all publicizing offenders with labels like “judgmental” or “imposing on others.” Such a culture domesticates faith and renders it wholly emotive-subjective, deracinating its rational content and eliminating its native capacity to leaven society and culture. Such censured public faith becomes very, very uncomfortable when we try to evangelize, i.e. to Gospel-ize the world around us.

To mention “Jesus” in polite company is just bad manners, singularly awkward, freakishly weird and shocking, so most Christians simply avoid J-talk outside of the household of faith and speak as if He were irrelevant to the vast majority of daily living. While discussion of “God” may be tolerated, as it is a malleable cipher, Jesus is loaded with an in-your-face meaning that forces a confrontation. Not simply with an idea, but with an historically defined person whose supernal dynamism continues unabated after 20 centuries. Jesus is God made content-specific, radically particular, with facial features marred by a history of human violence yet creased by the smile-lines of divine joy. Indeed, He is alive here and now and, when He is spoken of, it’s just strangely palpable.

The acreage free for the scattering of these flaming seeds of the Word has become tiny indeed, safely hemmed in by fences of fear.

But the light of faith is fearless and knows of no such borders. The faith of Jesus demands as expansive a horizon as does our sun, which of necessity commands infinite space to fully expend its selfless radiance. Faith is volatile, irrepressible, and will always rebel against artificial boundaries or punch holes in low ceilings as it reaches toward the Most High. It possesses its own momentum, its own force of power that seeks to infest everything, like a wildfire that breaks free from the stones of a fire ring, driven by its irrevocable will to engulf everything.

Yet this graced fire of faith, like the Burning Bush, neither diminishes nor overwhelms what it takes into itself, but builds on nature, preserving liberty, illumining all it encompasses, revealing expanses of beauty and wonder and glory hidden in quarks and quasars. Faith enhances, perfects and elevates, even as it purifies and refines. “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great” (Pope Benedict).

Faith is our priestly, prophetic and kingly reception of God’s loving gaze on the creation He declares at every moment to be good, good, good, good, good, good and very good.

Bearers of luminous faith must not refrain from speaking, engaging, introducing, proposing, witnessing, inviting, inferring, proclaiming, gesturing, enacting and questing with others in a common hunt for truth in love. In Him we live and move and have our being. We must beg the Spirit for wisdom, charity, boldness and gentleness; for a remarkable capacity to listen and a serene confidence that flows from trust in God as the Source and End of all that exists.

I met a woman named Jan at a catechetical conference in D.C. back in 2003. She was an enthusiastic member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. She had high ceilings, vast horizons and a disarming personality. And was very funny in a natural way. I was giving talks at this conference and between two sessions I developed a terrible headache. She noticed my discomfort and offered to drive me in her rental car to the nearby convenience store to get some ibuprofen. She came inside with me to get some items for herself, and when we got to the counter to check out, the clerk seemed very miserable. Jan said to her, “You alright today?” The woman replied, “Nah, crappy day. Sorry. Is that all you’re getting today?” Jan replied very matter of factly, “Have you told Jesus about this?” The woman looked a bit stunned. She said, “No, not actually.” Jan said, “Do you mind if I tell Him right now and ask Him to help you?” The woman said, “No, I don’t mind.” Jan said, “What’s your name?” “Claire.” So Jan prayed something like, “Jesus, Claire is feeling low. Lord, she was made for joy. Let her know that you love her and you care about her sadness…”

She prayed for a minute or so. The woman teared up as she prayed, and when Jan was done Claire said, “You’ve changed my whole day. Thank you.” Somehow, nothing about the exchange seemed assaulting or invasive — I really think because Jan was so loving and so sincere. And if Claire had said she was not comfortable with the prayer, Jan unquestionably would have been just as loving in her respecting that wish.

That’s how living faith works. Simple, direct, natural, bold, respectful, spontaneous, surprising, unaffected, free, kind, offered to lift the other up. To Him.

One last thought as I meander through to the end of this post. In a climate hostile to faith witness, we must always keep in mind that faith stands at its most eloquent and penetrating when it is rejected, spurned, ridiculed, spat on and ignored. Only then can faith and love be fused, trust be evidenced, and only then can one rightly claim to be a lover of Truth yielding the torrents of unseen mercy that flow ceaselessly from Christ’s open side.

Caritas in veritate.

It is only the blazing splendor of such Truth that pierces the darkness, softens hard hearts and saves the world. Let us walk confidently along this Way.

You Want It Darker

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his last album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.

++++

Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. His Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited his Hebrew faith. Or at least its language, worship and narratives as he grasped for meaning at the edge of meaning; and of the grave. It was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death [in 2016] that utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and woke up to write.

His gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language (and tones) of the Kaddish, Jewish prayers for the dead. Cohen wants his poetry to find its light beneath the long shadow over the atrocities of history, especially those inflicted on the Jews, intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth. He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in the song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11). The first, but not last time it appears in Scripture. It punctuates the song’s relentless, dread reckoning with God’s seemingly complicit flirtation with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. More broadly, it seems to me, Cohen is grappling with the meaning of God’s permissive will — or His ordained will with Abraham — that has allowed death such immense power in the world, above all through the bloodstained hands of His own image, man.

Hineni, which is a word of obedient readiness, is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called; even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word, indeed “wants out” if the Dealer deals thus. He is not content to simply passively submit without protest against death into mystery. He wrestles, brawls with God. Like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33) and Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) and Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14) and Job in his anguish (Job 31) and Jeremiah in the face of plots (Jeremiah 20:7-18) and the psalmists moaning out of the suffering of exile and slaughter. Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice — even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, and its countless modern analogues, loom large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings, prays (?) this song.

When Cohen says “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord” to God, what does he declare himself ready for? Unresolved.

“Vilified, crucified in the human frame” — while it’s easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning, for a Jew the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes quaking dissonance. A shattering and terrifying paradox, really, as image slays image. Genesis 9:5-6. Cain, Abel; and the slaughter-bench of of history’s endless procession of iconoclastic/image-smashing murderers. Permitted, okay; but permitted to “murder and maim?” Why such horrific latitude? He wonders, grinds within….How does this work in the divine economy? A paradox to blame? Or is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself that is not merely content with some dazzling paradox?

The song is just brilliant. For me, here’s how: It is raw, shocking honesty and protest in the face of the night before the face of God, though not appearing to be rebellion, lays before God cursed evil in an unjustified, un-rationalized state. “Here it is, Lord.” Not cushioned or romanticized or coated or softened, but prayed out of into God. It reminds me so much of absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among the psalms that ends its search for God in total darkness. Lamenting beneath heaven’s dread silence. Or I think of the Book of Lamentations — makes you sweat if you really pray into it. At night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward. Of God, Jeremiah says:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (3:1-14; 17-18)

Such prayer, uttered by those who “descend into hell,” is prayer “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1) in the truest sense. There in the abyss (Psalm 42:7), hope can shine brightest as hope fully blooms only in hopeless spaces where its anchored strength is needed. God cannot redeem what He does not assume, make His own, and He cannot assume what we ourselves do not surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a form of redemption that — St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night — makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed thus on the cross, in His native tongue. Eli! Eli!

I don’t know if Cohen would consider this text a sung (or groaned!) prayer or not, but he is voicing the anguished, tortured prayer of those who sink into the pit, are mired in depression, succumb to the gas chamber, suffer tragic loss, witness the destruction of the innocent — but still turn these upward.

Why have you? Where have you gone? How long, O Lord? Wake up! Such a vision of real faith — Hineni — seeks no facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

I think here of David Bentley Hart’s echo of Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, the monk protests against a kind of God who intentionally “uses” human suffering for His own good ends:

Answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be architect on such conditions?

In an article he wrote after the 2004 Tsunami, Hart said:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Cohen shares this same protest that the God who “became sin” Himself took up on a cross, in hell. Passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis.

Hallelujah.

Playful Providence

I love the Jewish-Christian idea of divine providence, which the Catechism #302 defines very simply this way:

We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward perfection.

Combining the Latin words pro, “ahead” and videre, “to see,” providence’s “divine foresight” reveals history to be not simply the subject of blind chance, but as under the guiding watch of fatherly love that, in spite of the looming cross, ever-envisages a more glorious resurrection. That said, Catholic theology affirms that genuinely random chance is part of creation, fully compatible with a divine providence that allows the “space” required for the radical variables of chance and human freedom. As theologian Thomas Davenport puts it:

God’s creative power is such that the very powers that allow a creature to act and to cause, even to cause contingently and by chance, depend at every moment on His sustaining power. Whatever happens in the world, whether it is a radioactive decay, a biological mutation, a decision to sin, or a decision to praise Him, does not catch God by surprise. In fact, He gives His creatures their existence and their natures that allow them to decay, to mutate, to sin, or to praise.

For me, such a view of history is far more thrilling to contemplate than either a predestining providence that controls all things like a puppet on a string or a providence-less universe wherein history blindly presses on without hope of a final resolve into beauty. The first makes for a monstrous view of God who enslaves creation and the second makes for an ultimately meaningless, purposeless view of history. The Jewish and Christian universe, however, is filled with all the tensions of drama and surprise, mystery and faith, terror and eager hope of a labor and delivery room.

And with play.

All of this came to mind because of remarkable coincidence that happened last week, which I will recount for you in brief. A little background. Twenty-three years ago my wife and I fell in love. I remember precisely the place and time. We were in St. Augustine, Florida on a mini-pilgrimage to the holy sites there, in particular the Nombre de Dios mission with its tiny Our Lady of La Leche Shrine dedicated to Mary nursing Jesus. As Patti and I walked toward the two-hundred and eight foot tall cross marking the location of the first Mass celebrated by the Spaniards in Florida in 1565, I remember vividly looking at her face for the very first time with romantic love. We had been simply friends before that for years. Later that evening, after dark, we decided to visit the Shrine chapel to pray. The gates were locked, so we jumped the fence and went into the chapel. The alarm went off! So we prayed very quickly, and I consecrated our still very secret love to God and our Lady, and then we sprinted off.

It’s a wonderful memory she and I love to revisit together, and over the years of our marriage we would return to that Shrine chapel many times to pray for the gift of a child or to grieve our miscarriages.

Back to last Friday. Patti had been gone all week at a conference and I was feeling especially lonely that day. During the morning while I was working, I texted a friend of ours in New Orleans to wish him a happy birthday. He knows nothing of our St. Augustine history or the “shrine alarm” story. He responded to my birthday text at once, “Tom, so kind. I’m here at this chapel. NOW in St. Augustine. Will say a prayer for you and the family.” I assumed he was referring to a parish in New Orleans called St. Augustine, until he texted me a moment later the picture I included at the top of this post. A photo of Our Lady of La Leche Shrine.

I was flabbergasted and audibly reacted in the coffee shop: “WHAT?!” Two elderly men across from me fell silent and stared. I said, “Sorry, just an amazing coincidence.” I immediately texted him back to share the significance of his text to me, and he replied, “What!!???!! Wow. Mass at noon. You both will be in our intentions. So crazy. Right!!!! Literally. [You texted my your birthday wish] the exact moment we walked into the chapel.”

What the heck? How? Why? I don’t claim to know. Coincidence inhabited by the Creator. As a person of faith it’s easy to see in such moments what I like to call God’s playful providence. Maybe its part of His passion — so evident in Scripture — for connecting events, revealing hidden patterns, painting wild masterpieces, telling crazy stories, writing seemingly-cacophonous symphonies, creating stunning beauty, disclosing a new order of existence under the form of surprise. Glimmers and sparks of a conspiracy toward Christ’s final resolve into beauty, what we Christians call the final judgment, the parousia, the consummation of history when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” On that Day, evil will be definitively judged, love will conquer all, every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new. The work God first began in the Virgin’s womb, nursing at her breast, will be brought to glorious completion in an eternal wedding feast.

Yes, right, a wedding feast that for us began in a Shrine as we ran.

How grateful I am that the Bridegroom chose last Friday to grant me a glimpse of His “divine disposition toward perfection” in my bride, and through the text of a dear and unsuspecting friend on his birthday.

Lead Thou me on.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Should lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life. — Bl. John Henry Newman

Good God and Bad Romance

[This is a post that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing in fits and starts over months and months. It’s long, as my posts go, but it’s time to let it go, it seems. St. Benedict, pray for us!]

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. — St. John Paul II

I was talking recently with a gentleman who is a marriage and family therapist about Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. We discussed at length the tendency among some wonderful catechetical initiatives in the U.S. to idealize the ‘wonders of sex’ in a Catholic marriage. Whether it’s the relationship-building power of Natural Family Planning (or ‘fertility awareness’ as I prefer to call it c/o Dr D. Cudihy) or the theo-erotically charged claims found in elements of the Theology of the Body movement (as opposed to St. John Paul’s actual teaching), there can be a “Gospel of Prosperity” feel to some of the promises made to Catholics, e.g. spiritually ecstatic supercharged sex that will leave you feeling more fulfilled in your marriage than any of those secular couples out there who don’t know what we know.

Really?

While it is unquestionably true that data shows couples who internalize a Catholic moral-theological vision of sex and marriage fare better overall in terms of things like marital stability and overall contentment with the goodness of the marriage relationship — along with other very positive effects — there is simply no magic equation between “doing it Catholic” and marital-sexual bliss. Just having right ideas in your head doesn’t mean your whole internal and external world suddenly approximates those ideas. Nor does doing the morally right thing mean it will automatically give rise to pleasure and happiness. The recognition and embracing of any truth is only the beginning of a long journey of integrating that truth into the complex realities of our thinking, feeling, behavior, relationships, commitments, etc. Now, in a culture that has made sexual pleasure into an end-in-itself, that idealizes orgasms as supremely life-fulfilling, or that markets (lucratively) sex with products and techniques that “guarantee” maximal sexual satisfaction without any negative consequences (or children), it can be tempting for evangelizers to mime the illusion and promise that faith offers the same results within its own moral-theological vision. “All that and more (without the bad stuff)!” But, anyone who has actually tried to live either the capitalist-hedonist illusion, or its Catholic mime, knows, if they’re honest, that sex in marriage yields very uneven results.

The simple truth of the matter is that sex is only part of the far more complex reality of marriage, of two different human beings who have chosen to join their very different selves into a shared experience of life. The choice to marry is itself extreme! Just think: a man and woman offering each other a total and exclusive self-gift of lifelong faithful love made for mutual benefit and for the good of those children they hope God will bless them with. So it is natural, it seems, to expect that sex would also in some way be an extreme experience of this enormous gift of love. However, the experience of sex involves and expresses the total real experience of real people in any given moment, itself hemmed in by innumerable limiting realities, i.e. health, psychological state, personal history, temperament, motives, location, time limits, ad infinitum.

Sex is the gift of the real self to a real other, not of the ideal self, and so requires all of the work and struggle and hard virtues that every other aspect of real married life requires to succeed. Sex sweeps up into itself everything else about us, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly. It does not acquire, by grace or by technique, a miraculous immunity from the larger contextual experience of who each spouse is. And like that larger life, sex is uneven and inconsistent and, in the Catholic vision, must always be about far more than merely personal or relational satisfaction. It’s about, among other things, love, justice, temperance, patience, new life, bonding, communication, reverence for the other, tenderness, trust, boundaries, the capacity to see life through the other’s eyes. It’s about a lot.

And sex, like the emotional life, serves as a loud and insistent primal cry from deep within to attend to other (often ignored) issues — things seemingly unrelated to sex — that require action if the marriage is to grow and flourish. Like emotional intelligence, sexual intelligence is very intuitive and bypasses the remarkable capacity of individuals or couples for rationalizing and self-delusion. While you can try to bypass sex’s insistent voice for a while, using psychological denial or alcohol or diversions or some such thing, eventually the truth your sex life was trying to tell you will surface elsewhere and demand your attention. Or your marriage.

Over the years, a number of men and women — Catholic and non-Catholic — have shared with Patti and me their trials and tribulations with sex in marriage. It is an honor to be allowed into that sacred space, and I tread with fear and trembling in terms of giving advice. Dear God, what can I say? I’m a theologian, not a therapist. Among these people, some struggle with a spouse insisting on using artificial contraception, some struggle with the challenges of using fertility awareness methods, some struggle with infertility, some struggle with each spouse’s very different approach to sex and physical intimacy, some struggle with finding time and space and energy in their very busy work-family lives for physical intimacy, some struggle with fear of another pregnancy (rational or irrational), some struggle with an inability to talk openly about sex with their spouse, some struggle with feeling sexually starved, some struggle with feeling sexually used, some struggle with being sexually apathetic, some struggle with feeling tempted to infidelity, some struggle with impotence or health issues that make sex difficult or impossible, some struggle with being pressured to have sex because it’s ovulation-time (or because it’s not ovulation time), some struggle with the too-fast move from affection to intercourse. I could go on.

Of course, every single honest couple would readily admit their own struggles, their uneven experience of sex, regardless of how prayerful or orthodox or open to life or holy they are. Sex is a participation in the larger reality of marriage’s self-giving, life-giving, grace-giving, co-laboring love — with an emphasis placed on the “part” of participation. Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.

My point is that sexuality in marriage is a fully human experience on every level, and when you marry someone, you marry a fully human, baggage-laden human. Sex is a struggle because life and love are a struggle. Marriage, for Catholics, is a Sacrament which is full of graces meant to aid the couple in allowing their unique experience of full-humanity to become redemptive and sanctifying. Grace builds on nature, heals and elevates nature from within. But, as God’s common practice goes, He does not ordinarily remove our struggles from us. Rather, He saturates our struggles in grace so that the struggle itself becomes no longer enemy, but friend. It becomes the primary means of being redeemed, and of growth in virtues like humility, trust, respect, tenderness, patience, fortitude, temperance and sacrificial love. As the Council of Trent put it, God leaves behind our yucky weaknesses (concupiscence) after Baptism “for the sake of the battle” (cf 2 Cor 12:9). In this case, God invites the couple to fight together to conquer sin, secure the lovely victory of love, and become saints together. St. Paul aptly describes saint-making marriage in Ephesians 5 as a Garden of the Cross, God’s privileged New Eden in which He chooses to (re)plant His sacrificial love in creation. Hence, God has planted the Cross in the middle of sex, making its greatest joy the struggle to love your spouse in body, mind and spirit.

The real joy of Catholic sex is getting a taste of the divine ecstasy of infinitely selfless, faithful, total, life-giving and sacrificial love that became incarnate and fumbled about with us. And that joy, when embraced within the whole of our reality — including God’s amazing grace — is deep, abiding and ecstatic. Ecstatic, I say, as it comes from the Greek contraction ek-statis, “standing outside yourself.” Sexual ecstasy in marriage is about making love. Not the cheap version used to describe an orgasm’s passing oxytocin rush, but really making love. Ecstatic love calls you outside yourself deeper into that one-flesh union you pledged in the beginning. Because in the final analysis, true joy is the fruit of being all about the other, about being into their joy.

“…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

This was certainly the rationale St. John Paul II used when he made this point:

Since in marriage a man and a woman are associated sexually as well as in other respects the good must be sought in this area too. From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved. This is implicit in the principle which we have already so thoroughly analysed, and which excludes exploitation of the person, and insists on love. In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.

Let me say to bring an end to this overly long and rambling reflection, all married people should have some trusted person (or couple) in your life with whom they can share their struggles. Whether as an individual or as a couple. Don’t keep your trails shrouded in secrecy. Wise friends, confidants and couples have brought me immense strength these years!

One husband once said to me as we talked about his struggles in marital intimacy, “It just shouldn’t be this much work.” I said, “Really? Are you kidding? Yes it should. Sex for us Catholics is about love, and love is damn hard work. If you think it’s just a cheap thrill, an easy fix, a quick path to happiness with her, you’ll be permanently frustrated. This isn’t Disney, it’s reality. So get to work…”

But if I had memorized the words of Pope Benedict, I would have said this instead:

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

Prune us, Lord, that Patti and I might, by our Yes, in sex and in life, become fruitful branches on the vine.

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you