So small

“No one can grow if he does not accept his smallness.” ― Pope Francis

After reading this quote in an article, I wrote this stream of consciousness reflection in my journal:

Every year I feel smaller and smaller. I realize more how much I don’t know. How much there is to know. How fragile I and others are.  I see how much I have not done, should have done, can never do. I wish I had, wish I had not… I see the vastness of the ancient universe. I, so tiny. Those whom I once saw as invincible, are rendered helpless by illness or misfortune. How limited is my control over life. I see all my flaws and limits more clearly as I age, and time wears away the desire for illusion, to see what I want to see. I look now: there I am.

When I was small I would always notice tiny things, relished hidden treasures. As I grew, I grew dull to them. But grace has reawakened in me a preference for the tiny and small and out of the way, the obscured beauties. I want to re-turn to childhood — “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3). At least on my better days. I love learning the small details of others’ hopes and dreams, pains and anxieties. I have grown again to cherish stopping along the road to catch view of a tiny flower. My wife and children have taught me that love is in the details.

I beg that God’s attentiveness to hair-counts, which seems to rank high on the spectrum of His delight, becomes my own. “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid” (Luke 12:7). Yet I so easily get lost in a narrowed vision, become myopic. It’s usually an experience of pain, sickness, suffering — mine or others — that rips off my blinders yet again.

I pray often for what St. Teresa of Avila says is a sweet fruit of divine charity: to notice above all, amid the many flaws of others, the often hidden goods that are there. Not to dwell in their failings, which loom, and which oft may make me feel better about my own crap and distract me from my own mess. But at what a cost. Little Thérèse also saw this:

I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects–not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.

I see more clearly now than I ever have that God prefers nothing more than working great things within all these limiting factors. He came for the sick, he loves the outcast, he has preferential love for the 1 out of 99. The Most Low God, the Infinite lover of the itty. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Orthodox paradoxy.

And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah  — Leonard Cohen

All our weaknesses and broken jars must be given to Him as an offering; turned from inward fretting upward into a prayer, a cry for mercy. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), i.e. everything human about your life is game for sacrifical worship. My fragilities, if turned from empty gaps or murky holes into spacious capacities for God’s gifts, become wellsprings of divine grace in the midst of the world. Only what is offered up can be consecrated.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, beset by the tempest of human failures and incomplete lives, I jump out of the boat into the Ocean of mercy toward the God who calls me to walk upon the surging waves, eyes fixed on Jesus, and trust.

“In peace I will lie down and fall asleep,
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:9)

I Heart Prayer

I was at a staff retreat recently given by Archbishop Alfred Hughes, and took copious notes. I thought I would share three of these journaled points with you today as I personally found them very rich. I left them unedited. They intersperse his insights with the insights they provoked in me. Archbishop’s phrases are italicized, mine are the rest.

1. Prayer is ultimately about the heart, about learning to speak to God with both affection and awe; with all the tension inherent in “daring” to call God “Father.” What does praying with the heart feel like? How do you know you’re doing it? When you find an array of emotions entering your conversations with God: joy, sadness, anger, fear, confusion, lust, even bland apathy. Heart-prayer does not limit expressions of prayer to only “acceptable” feelings like trust, joy, reverence. We need to pray out of our life-experience so that God can enter into that life experience with His saving power. Heart-prayer is when you pray “intentionally,” meaning you attend to God’s presence, pray “before His face” very near you, with focus. When I speak with my wife and my mental attention wanders off while she’s speaking, she can immediately tell — usually I’ll use auto-responses like “sure,” “right” or “okay” inappropriately. She might say: “Hello? Are you with me?” lol And my attention returns to her. When we both attend to each other, there’s intimacy. When I am listening attentively to her word, internalizing it and responding out of that word directly to her, I am truly speaking “heart to heart.” And vice versa. My wife has proved herself absolutely trustworthy to me in the 28 year history of our relationship — and so I can speak from the heart de profundis, “out of the depths,” without fear. Defined by the promises of our marriage which give our love the shape of totality, she is my most intimate confidant to whom I can reveal the deepest, darkest, best, most vulnerable portions of my inner world. “The heart of her husband trusts in her…she does him good, not harm…” (Prov 31:11-12). Knowing she listens with love, with care, receives me into herself as she listens. That she gives me encouragement and insight as well as honesty and truth and challenge. All of these things make of our communication an exchange of hearts. God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, waiting for our consent for Him to enter and begin a conversation. A real one. A deep one. An authentic one. Cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart.”

So it is with God as Father. Who He is for me, and I for Him makes our every encounter an encounter of hearts. In Jesus He has revealed His identity as a Father who is absolutely trustworthy and in love with mankind in general, and me in particular (cf John 14:9; 16:27). And to invite my trust in this, He has bared His Heart to us first, manifested His longing desire for each of us (John 19:28, 34; 1 Pet. 5:7), so that we might have the courage to trust Him and do the same in return. Every broken experience of fatherhood in this world Jesus wishes to repair by bringing to us the Father. God is also the awesome God, the holy-holy-holy other, beyond all language, wielding unspeakable power; and yet He is in essence love, the defining core of His identity as Father. To enter into the mystery of heart-prayer with God is to risk an exodus from the narrow confines of our sin-sick shallow lives out into the horizonless and fathomless Ocean of God’s fierce-tenderness that reveals an infinite love; a love that counts the hairs on my head. This Father has also all of the attentiveness and tenderness of a mother’s affection (Is. 66:13). “Hearts unfold like flowers before Him, opening to the Sun above…”

2. The Our Father teaches us that prayer is about letting God be God and not simply trying to convince Him to do our bidding. Because God is this kind of Father, we know that in His will is our peace. Much of our prayer, especially in the face of suffering and evil, often looks less like the surrendering trust of a small child raising his hands toward his daddy, and more like the fearful bargaining of an abused child who assumes that his father wishes him harm. The Our Father is really an extended consent to God to do-His-will; to carry out His providential plan in us. We say, in essence, in me (1) reveal the holiness of your Name; (2) make your kingdom come; (3) carry out your will completely; a will which looks like (4) feeding us superabundantly; (4) forgiving us so we might pay forgiveness forward; (6) empowering us to resist yielding to destructive temptation; and (7) liberating us from the Evil One. 4-7 show that the consent of 1-3 is always good for us, permitting a truly provident, loving, redeeming Father to care for us.

But we know from His crucified and risen Son that the playing out of the divine will in real-time takes the form of trust and obedient, self-sacrificing love. When given to God (Rom 12:1), the whole catastrophe of our lives becomes a eucatastrophe, a “good disaster” that resolves tragedy into a divine comedy. Such a handing over of the whole mess to God always yields the fruits of life and love and peace and justice and reconciliation and every other good thing — the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus – — as God gathers up, glorifies and preserves all good, and redeems all evil for unending ages in the Age to Come. Hope. Trust in this God is possible — unshakably so — because His Son blazed a trail ahead of us; He who was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10; 5:8) in the darkness of Friday, impregnating Friday with the bright dawn of Sunday.

3. Prayer gives God permission to heal our false self (based in the compulsive need to prove our worth) and draw out our true self (based in our dignity as being unconditionally loved). Our attitude toward life is shaped by a thousand hidden premises formed in our earliest years of life. As we grow older wisdom requires us to examine and redact these premises as needed. In prayer, we give God permission to redact, edit our false premises and rewrite in their place true premises (Jer. 31:33). So many of these! This is the Church’s whole teaching that flows from Sacred Scripture. The most fundamental premise is this: our life, our very existence is grounded first and foremost in God’s unconditional, free, gratuitous, irrevocable, exceedingly particular and boundless love. Love! And love has been very specifically defined by God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, who is Himself God’s definition of both human and divine love (John 1:1-18). To embrace that basic premise is to discover a life grounding revolution, the liberating truth of who we are as loved to the core. Again, prayer is the permission for God to edit and re-write our faulty inner manuscripts and pen in us our new name (Rev. 2:17).

I can’t not end with Screen:

Lord of the Dance

While I am posting pre-written work, I’ll just do it again once more. This one’s from June. I did not think it was complete, but now it seems so…

“Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope.” — Pope Francis, #AmorisLaetitia 219

I love to dance, but I am so bad at it that I rarely get the chance to let loose without extreme self-consciousness. Only when I’m with my wife, who can dance and loves to dance, or when I’m alone do feel free enough to allow myself permission to dance with abandon. One day, Patti and I will take dance lessons.

One of the reasons I love dance is its uselessness. It’s a sheer act of expressiveness. When I dance with my wife, I am able to say with my body: you are simply a joy to be with. After we dance, I always feel like we celebrated our wedding all over again.

Just like liturgy, dance is a form of play. Play expresses freedom and creativity and the celebration of existence “without a why.” Dance is an imaginative shrine for choreographed spontaneity that shows how artful intertwining freedoms can be. How wonderful! In play we can see the dramatic nature of existence as a wild and dangerous love story, carried out amid light and shadows, performed with abandon. While there are rules that govern play, the rules give ample space for risk, which is the premise of every aspiration to greatness.

The revered liturgical theologian Romano Guardini eloquently expressed the playful aspect of liturgy in his book, Spirit of the Liturgy:

The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline who has knowledge of the world who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, God’s kingdom on earth. Truly it is Eternal Wisdom’s delight “to be with the children of men” (cf. Proverbs 8:31).

Jews know how to dance. The scantily clad King David famously celebrated his liturgical whirl around the Ark of the Covenant, much to his wife Mychal’s chagrin — “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam. 6:14).

Dance inscribes music in the body, shaping it into the form of its rhythms, melodies and harmonies. If the baptized body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and the body is to become at all times a liturgical offering glorifying God (Rom 12:1; Col. 3:17), can we not say that when we dance we are enacting, in a singular way, the lived liturgy of joyful praise to God? It’s hard to imagine a more worthy manner of revealing the beauty and goodness of this world and the world to come.

An African-American priest I am blessed to know once texted me something totally remarkable. I received it last Fall, the morning after my wife and I had attended our parish’s annual festival. We had danced the previous night for about two hours to live music played by a local band called Bag of Donuts. Though we were one of the few couples dancing, it was so much fun! Because of her. Well, he wrote me these words in his text: “Dr. Neal, I was praying last night for you and got this crazy sense that Jesus wanted me to tell you to not be afraid to dance like a white boy. That when you get to heaven He wants you to dance. So go ahead and dance, Dr. Neal!”


So during my recent silent retreat [in June], I did something totally new for me. And a bit odd. The retreat house was completely empty and so on one of the nights I decided to try it out. I put my earbuds in, set my iPhone playlist to songs I like, and danced in the mostly dark dining room for the next hour. At the end I was soaked with sweat and full of joy.

It. Was. Awesome.

With eleven statues of saints lining the walls around me, I swear I caught sight of a few Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.

All I could think of as I danced was the line in the Prodigal Son story: “as [the older son] came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing” (Luke 15:25). That’s what goes on in the Father’s house, so I felt in good company. And even if I am poor at it, I have to believe God is delighted with the spirit behind the action.

Try it sometime if you haven’t.

Let them praise his name with dancing,
    making melody to him with tambourine and lyre (Psalm 149:3)

Misfits and Heathens

The Christian message is transmitted by embracing those in difficulty, by embracing the outcast, the marginalized and the sinner.– Pope Francis

As I said, every now and then I will throw a post out here. And I couldn’t sleep last night. Perfect combo for a soul-calming writing session.

The release of the new Twenty One Pilots song, Heathens, in the last two weeks made posting irresistible. But instead of offering a direct commentary on the lyrics, I will tell you a story and allow you — if you’re game — to think about the song through that story. Like entering a poem, allow the somewhat enigmatic lyrics to paint your mind with imaginative colors.

By a remarkable coincidence, this story was relayed to me shortly before the song was released, which is why I made the immediate association.

I met a young man, in his mid twenties, who shared with me his story of being, and feeling, alienated from the church. I thought it was an extremely insightful story and he graciously gave me permission to share the outlines of that story. My kids think it’s very strange when I ask people if I can write on what they tell me, so I try not to ask when they are in earshot.

We started talking outside a convenience store where he worked after I had asked him to help me get the air pump to work. He asked me what I did (I had a suit on) and I told him I worked at a seminary. After we had a brief conversation about what I do for the seminary, he asked if he could share with me an insight for priests. I told him I would be grateful to hear what he had to say and would certainly put his wisdom to good use. I’m telling you, it is amazing how people open up when you tell them you work for the church.

He was diagnosed in his early twenties with a social anxiety disorder, and had lived his late childhood and adolescent years in a fairly abusive social environment. Terribly sad. He seemed like a bright young man. After going through some very dark times in his early twenties, he was able to work out of his major issues and secure a steady job working at a convenience store in a management position. And he’s now dating a girl, his very first girlfriend. His parents were Sunday Catholics, but not especially religious. His mom tried very hard when he was fifteen to get him involved in parish youth group when she saw he was withdrawing from social interactions and losing himself in online gaming. Here’s my summary of what I recall he said to me in our hour long conversation (with details left fuzzy for anonymity):

The youth group I attended was a very cliquey group, even though they seemed like nice kids. They were all very social and outgoing. I wasn’t. And all the activities they did were for people like them. After a few times, I told my mom I would never go again. It was too painful for me. They were all happy and smiling and knew each other and could talk about Jesus and God so easily, but for me it was all so totally not me. It was like listening to someone speaking another language to you. You hear all the sounds but you don’t know what any of it means. And they talk to you without any care you don’t speak their language. When you don’t know what to say, they just are like, “oh-kay,” and awkwardly walk away. I mean, they don’t realize how different our worlds are. I’m not blaming them. It is what it is.

For me, I had found my world of acceptance online in [I forgot the name of the forums he mentioned], where social misfits gathered and shared their hatred of most pop culture and of Christians. Most of people in these forums are agnostics or atheists. Pop culture is all about everything we weren’t (cool, attractive, social), and serious Christians seemed live this facade of smiley happiness and everything’s great and Jesus loves you and there are no problems. That’s what it seemed like. And we’re all like, “My life’s shit and you don’t have room for us.”

But what totally pushed me off the edge in that youth group was when this one kid said — I’m sure he meant well — “Hey, you don’t look like you know Jesus loves you. You gotta smile, man! Cheer up! Have fun! The joy of the Lord!” I was like, screw you dude. You don’t know what my life’s like. And you don’t care. I went home really angry and went straight online and bitched about this and everybody was totally with me. They all raged on the Christians. “Love! Yeah, love each other but not the f-ing freaks!”

In that [online] world I could feel accepted and be myself and feel important. But I thought to myself, God’s still important to me. I wish there was somebody like me out there, but who doesn’t want to ditch God. Wish there was a place for people like us. And I eventually grew to hate the negativity on these forums. It was all toxic. We were unified over our hatred of the rest of the world of normal people, who ran everything. But we ran this world online. It was our kingdom.

I’ve come a long way since then. I got help, got out of that online world because it was so poison and I’m beginning to find a place for my faith now, ten years later. And I’m almost back to church every week now, because when I went to church at Christmas with my parents the priest, as we were walking out, asked me my name and shook my hand and smiled and said, “Thanks for coming” which totally amazed me. That was like the best thing I could have heard.

So here’s what I’d tell you to tell the priests. They need to make sure they look out for the kids who walk around with their heads down, who walk funny, who don’t know how to hold a conversation, who get lost in the crowd. Just let them know you care. Maybe there’s nothing you can do for them socially, like getting them involved in a group, because they’re socially awkward and they probably won’t do it. But make sure everyone at your church who’s responsible for making young people feel welcome, that they don’t forget these kids. And that when they give their sermons, they need to speak about how God can mean something to someone who feels very isolated and alone. And how Jesus is not just for attractive and happy and successful and outgoing people, but for everyone. That even a misfit can fit in.


The video (which has scenes from the movie, Suicide Squad, which the song features in), with lyrics below:

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse
All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

Welcome to the room of people
Who have rooms of people that they loved one day
Docked away
Just because we check the guns at the door
Doesn’t mean our brains will change from hand grenades
You’re lovin’ on the psychopath sitting next to you
You’re lovin’ on the murderer sitting next to you
You’ll think, “How’d I get here, sitting next to you?”
But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

We don’t deal with outsiders very well
They say newcomers have a certain smell
Yeah, I trust issues, not to mention
They say they can smell your intentions
You’re lovin’ on the freakshow sitting next to you
You’ll have some weird people sitting next to you
You’ll think “How did I get here, sitting next to you?”
But after all I’ve said, please don’t forget
(Watch it, watch it)

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
(Watch it)
Wait for them to ask you who you know
(Watch it)
All my friends are heathens, take it slow
(Watch it)
Wait for them to ask you who you know
(Watch it)

Why’d you come, you knew you should have stayed
(It’s blasphemy)
I tried to warn you just to stay away
And now they’re outside ready to bust
It looks like you might be one of us

My Forever Joy


2103/14 re-post — My favorite post of all.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. — Song of Songs 8:6-7

In our third year of marriage, I wrote my wife a poem that I would like to share here. She gave me permission.

I wrote it as a meditation on St. Bonaventure’s contention, not shared by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the covenant bond of sacramental marriage endures even beyond the grave. Though no longer a sacrament in the next world, and no longer sexual, something of the unique bond of marital love remains in the new creation. This position is an open opinion, a matter of theological speculation (what is called a theologoumenon, which is just the best word ever), and is not a defined article of faith.

St. Bonaventure says that marriage, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Paradise, bears within it the indelible mark of three mysteries: (1) the three-in-one Trinitarian communion of Persons, (2) the union of human and divine natures in Christ and (3) the covenant bond of Christ with his Bride, the Church. What a subject for prayer for a couple to reflect on together! Together they embody and communicate to all of creation these “deep things of God” (1 Cor.2:10), all in the midst of day to day nothings, small gestures of love and fidelity. Marriage is a sacramental nexus where God’s boundless self-emptying love and humanity’s bounded and muddling expressions of love coincide. No wonder marriage is so volatile!

Marriage was created and re-created by God to be a singularly thin and translucent window into His life-giving mystery — for the spouses, for their children and for all humanity. If “to love another person is to see the face of God,” then what kind of vision of God is possible when I choose to love another person in a most absolute, radical and final way? To see, touch, hear, smell and taste your spouse in faith is to see, touch, hear, smell and taste the beauty, goodness, fidelity, love, life and terribly disconcerting nearness of God incarnate. In the words of Gaudium et Spes:

Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect…

The Eastern Orthodox Churches, at least in their canonical-legal tradition, take the “radical monogamy” teaching very seriously. They view a subsequent marriage that follows a first valid sacramental marriage as a concession to human weakness. A second marriage is celebrated as a penitential act. In fact, the prayer after vows in the nuptial liturgy for a second marriage ends with the words, “You know the frailty of human nature, O Lord.” For the Orthodox, it matters not whether the first marriage ended by divorce or by the death of a spouse.

This is certainly a very strange notion for most Catholic or Protestant Christians for whom death dissolves marriage. Fr. Tom Hopko says of this Orthodox tradition:

In fact, we even believe, and I preach this many times in my life that when a man’s wife dies or a woman’s husband dies, as real Christians they remain faithful to them forever, and they cultivate a new relationship with them since they are in the presence of the Lord. But Chrysostom says that explicitly. He said if you’re really a strict Christian, you will be faithful even through death. And we have no expression in our marriage service “until death do us part.” There is no parting.

Radical monogamy is the most perfect expression of the love of God for creation, as is also virginity. Those are the two perfect human expressions of the love of God in human form. Sure, there can be penance. Sure, there can be compassionate “oikonomia” [accommodation to human weakness]. Certainly, there can be condescension to people’s sins and weaknesses, but they should be understood as being sins and weaknesses. They should not be justified in any case.

Now of course in the secular, fallen world you’ll have people who will say, “Well, why would I commit myself forever to anybody anyway? Maybe we’ll fall out of love. Maybe this is only good for a time. Maybe we’ll love somebody else. Maybe we’ll love many people. Maybe we’ll want to have sex with everyone.” Well the ancient Christian and Scriptural Christian answer would be that that’s part of the corrupted world, but that’s not the way Christians behave. That’s not the way Christians do it. If you’re a Christian, you just don’t do it this way. Period. One God, one faith, one baptism, one spouse.

Notwithstanding the uneven status this tradition of radical monogamy holds in the Church, what it highlights with laser focus is that married love is a most radical form of human love., i.e. love of neighbor in extremis, “in the extreme.” It contains and models within itself all other forms of love — of the friend, the lover, the martyr. Its absolute exclusivity demands an undivided heart. Upon this rock of marital love the human family is built, and through it, as through a diamond, the covenant love between God and humanity refracts its richest spectrum of color.

This should give each married couple pause, and the vivid sense of a vocation is vastly greater than the mere sum of their own individual personalities and preferences. Married love exists to tell the greatest love story ever told and, as sacrament, this love story has in reality been entrusted to them in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Lk. 6:38).

It’s the most important story you will ever tell your children, that helps shape their view of everything.

But we are so weak and small, sinful and inconsistent, petty and miserly! I mean, just yesterday we bickered as we couldn’t even agree on which route to take to the restaurant. How can we bear the burden of an immortal love story and not despair? Ah, yes we can, because this love story is the story of weak and small, sinful and inconsistent, petty and miserly humanity being saved by God while drowning in an ocean of mercy. So nothing, absolutely nothing given over to His providence will fail to tell this story.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

“O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away'” (Rev. 21:2-4).

The poem:

Deathless Love

May my love for you, my bride, be deathless,
and God now forbid that death do us part,
for death has died and surrendered its hold;
the grave, now forbidden to cleave our heart.

May our oneing love, my bride, flare bright
we now all-consumed in Christ-lit flame,
as our love, cross-hewn, stands stern as death,
carved deep into God’s Blood-writ Name.

May the Spirit sing through us, my bride,
bind us, even as with Father and Son is He,
that when death’s shadows threaten Night
Dawn will bid us One by immortal decree.

May we, O flesh of my flesh, my very me,
together in our laughter have eyes to see
ever and forever wrapping all around us
the all-unifying, ever-lovely One-in-Three.

An alternative to anger

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.

+ + +

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

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.