Therapeutic happy-talk and admonishing sinners

Today I would like to share with you two pieces for reflection.

Taken from

First, after posting on Monday about a mother’s struggle with the challenges of social media to family life, I came across an article on Tuesday in The New Atlantis (here) by Professor Peter Lawler on the tensions between Christian orthodoxy and American social doctrine. As I read these lines here, I found myself thinking about that Mom:

The Canadian philosopher George Grant, influenced by Heidegger, claimed that the United States has wholly given itself over to technology, defining human purpose as nothing more than the acquisition of power. All genuinely political life — and all philosophy, theology, and other forms of contemplation — have disappeared from America. For these not-entirely-friendly foreign critics, the United States is the country mostly wholly in the thrall of the technological “how” at the expense of any reflection on the “why” of humanly worthy purposes.

If, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn claimed, it is characteristic of the modern West to have “ceased to see the purpose” that should be the foundation of human life, it is perhaps in America that the lonely and demoralizing consequences of modern emptiness are most advanced. Beneath our therapeutic happy-talk and technologically optimistic pragmatism, a critic like Solzhenitsyn can hear the howl of existentialism. Americans have “nothing” — nothing but inarticulate anxiety with which to resist the “something” — the measurable effects — of technological progress.

Fortunately, we have technological remedies for our anxiety. There are, of course, those of the pharmacological variety. But there are also the diversions of the screen — from the smartphone to the laptop, from social media to video games to Internet porn. The complacently honest libertarian Tyler Cowen points to the dark side of our hyper-meritocratic future, where those individuals not clever and competent enough to succeed will lead marginally productive lives, contented by screen-based entertainment and other cheap high-tech diversions made by those at the top. But neither class, in this vision of the future, will include many who will be distinguished by the heart-enlarging traditional virtues of generosity or charity.

The genuinely countercultural philosopher-comedian Louis C.K. denies his daughters smartphones so that they might not find an easy way out of the anxious sadness that overwhelms us all from time to time for no good reason. We are more and more satisfied with the predictable, minimalist emotion that comes from being diverted from both one’s own solitary emptiness — one’s misery without God or without the communal and intimate attachments of a rich relational life — and from the empathy that comes from closeness to others.

Second, let me share this Lent-appropriate challenging quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 Lenten address. It came to mind after a colleague of mine very recently corrected me on a poor decision I had made, and I found myself so appreciative for his forthrightness. It reminded me of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s comment on his friendship with St. Basil, “We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue.” B16:


Taken from

Here I would like to mention an aspect of the Christian life which I believe has been quite forgotten: fraternal correction in view of eternal salvation. Today, in general, we are very sensitive to the idea of charity and caring about the physical and material well-being of others, but almost completely silent about our spiritual responsibility towards our brothers and sisters. This was not the case in the early Church or in those communities that are truly mature in faith, those which are concerned not only for the physical health of their brothers and sisters, but also for their spiritual health and ultimate destiny. The Scriptures tell us: “Rebuke the wise and he will love you for it. Be open with the wise, he grows wiser still, teach the upright, he will gain yet more” (Prov 9:8ff). Christ himself commands us to admonish a brother who is committing a sin (cf. Mt 18:15). The verb used to express fraternal correction – elenchein – is the same used to indicate the prophetic mission of Christians to speak out against a generation indulging in evil (cf. Eph 5:11). The Church’s tradition has included “admonishing sinners” among the spiritual works of mercy. It is important to recover this dimension of Christian charity. We must not remain silent before evil. I am thinking of all those Christians who, out of human regard or purely personal convenience, adapt to the prevailing mentality, rather than warning their brothers and sisters against ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to the truth and that do not follow the path of goodness. Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other. As the Apostle Paul says: “If one of you is caught doing something wrong, those of you who are spiritual should set that person right in a spirit of gentleness; and watch yourselves that you are not put to the test in the same way” (Gal 6:1). In a world pervaded by individualism, it is essential to rediscover the importance of fraternal correction, so that together we may journey towards holiness. Scripture tells us that even “the upright falls seven times” (Prov 24:16); all of us are weak and imperfect (cf. 1 Jn 1:8). It is a great service, then, to help others and allow them to help us, so that we can be open to the whole truth about ourselves, improve our lives and walk more uprightly in the Lord’s ways. There will always be a need for a gaze which loves and admonishes, which knows and understands, which discerns and forgives (cf. Lk 22:61), as God has done and continues to do with each of us.

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” — Genesis 4:10

A priest in his Ash Wednesday homily this week said, “St. Paul tells us to ‘be reconciled to God!’ But remember, my dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, most practically this means to us: be reconciled to one another. It’s easy to be reconciled to God. He’s easy to get along with. Not so easy is my difficult neighbor.” Considering the stories of global violence, I will share with you today three global witnesses of reconciliation that came to mind this week, two Christian, one Muslim.

St. Sudan

St. Bakhita. Taken from

Sold in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum, in the Sudan, as a slave, St. Josephine Bakhita endured constant beatings, starvation and humiliation. The trauma of her abduction was so profound it caused her to forget her own name. The name she is known for as a saint was the one given to her by slave traders — bakhita, Arabic for lucky. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was resold again three times and then given away to an Italian merchant who eventually gave her her freedom. The kindness of this Catholic family led her to embrace their Catholic faith and eventually to enter religious life.

Near the end of her life, a young student once asked her, “What would you do if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation she responded, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

That’s a vantage I can only bow low before in awe.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” — Hebrews 13:7

Taken from

Here is a letter (from Zenit) written posthumously to Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni by a Muslim friend of his who is also a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Father Ragheed and three deacons were shot and killed in Mosul, Iraq, on Sunday after Mass back in 2007.

In the name of the compassionate and merciful God,

Ragheed, my brother,

I ask your forgiveness for not being with you when those criminals opened fire against you and your brothers. The bullets that have gone through your pure and innocent body have also gone through my heart and soul.

You were one of the first people I met when I arrived to Rome. We met in the halls of the Angelicum and we would drink our cappuccino in the university’s cafeteria. You impressed me with your innocence, joy, your pure and tender smile that never left you.

I always picture you smiling, joyful and full of zest for life. Ragheed is to me innocence personified; a wise innocence that carries in its heart the sorrows of his unhappy people. I remember the time, in the university’s dining room, when Iraq was under embargo and you told me that the price of a single cappuccino would have satisfied the needs of an Iraqi family for a whole day.

You told me this as if you were feeling guilty for being far away from your persecuted people and unable to share in their sufferings …

In fact, you returned to Iraq, not only to share the suffering and destiny of your people but also to join your blood to the blood of thousands of Iraqis killed each day. I will never forget the day of your ordination [Oct. 13, 2001] in the Urbanian University … with tears in your eyes, you told me: “Today, I have died to self” … a hard thing to say.

I didn’t understand it right away, or maybe I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. … But today, through your martyrdom, I have understood that phrase. … You have died in your soul and body to be raised up in your beloved, in your teacher, and so that Christ would be raised up in you, despite the sufferings, sorrows, despite the chaos and madness.

In the name of what god of death have they killed you? In the name of which paganism have they crucified you? Did they truly know what they were doing?

O God, we don’t ask you for revenge or retaliation. We ask you for victory, a victory of justice over falsehood, life over death, innocence over treachery, blood over the sword. … Your blood will not have been shed in vain, dear Ragheed, because with it you have blessed the soil of your country. And from heaven, your tender smile will continue to light the darkness of our nights and announce to us a better tomorrow.

I ask your forgiveness, brother, for when the living get together they think they have all the time in the world to talk, visit, and share feelings and thoughts. You had invited me to Iraq … I dreamed of that visit, of visiting your house, your parents, your office. … It never occurred to me that it would be your tomb that one day I would visit or that it would be verses from my Quran that I would recite for the repose of your soul …

One day, before your first trip to Iraq after a prolonged absence, I went with you to buy souvenirs and presents for your family. You spoke with me of your future work: “I would like to preside over the people on the base of charity before justice” — you said.

It was difficult for me to imagine you a “canonical judge” … And today your blood and your martyrdom have spoken for you, a verdict of fidelity and patience, of hope against all suffering, of survival, in spite of death, in spite of everything.

Brother, your blood hasn’t been shed in vain, and your church’s altar wasn’t a masquerade. … You assumed your role with deep seriousness until the end, with a smile that would never be extinguished … ever.

Your loving brother,

Adnam Mokrani
Rome, June 4, 2007
Professor of Islamic Studies in the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture,
Pontifical Gregorian University

“Love your enemies” — Luke 6:

Undoubtedly you have heard of the gruesome beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS, but maybe you have not heard of the testimony of the family of two of the men murdered, who were also brothers. A friend sent me a video from an Arabic Christian television interview with a brother of these two men. He offers his gratitude to ISIS for allowing the name of Jesus, spoken by some of the men before their execution, to remain in the video of the mass beheading. He also shares his/their mother’s astonishing sentiments in the face of such brutality. If you have 4 1/2 minutes it will be worth your time. Chick on the blog post title if you are reading an emailed version.

A New Family

Fr. Powell, O.P.

I have, in the past, posted the homilies of a seminary colleague of mine, Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O.P. I find his style of preaching captivating with a simple profundity that’s rare, in my experience. I asked him if I could share his recent homily of the feast of St Angela Merici, and he graciously agreed. See his other work at The Gospel that day contained Jesus’ response to news that his family was outside the house waiting for him:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother.”

This is radical stuff, as Jesus fundamentally reconstitutes the meaning of family. In fact, throughout the Gospels, Jesus, in diverse ways, systematically dismantles core grounds of identity — e.g. ethnicity, blood relations, national borders, social status or cultural bonds — and reconstitutes them into a new human community gathered into an in-breaking Kingdom, defined by the double command to charity, and centered around himself. So, for example, he can say to the Pharisee who invited him to dinner,

When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Saintly contemporaries like Jean Vanier, the founder of the remarkable L’Arche communities, give voice to this new vision of things:

Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus. These are our brothers and sisters, and we, theirs.

Okay, Fr. Philip:


               How does a woman become a mother? Or a man a brother? How do any of us become who we are in relation to someone else? Why does it matter who we are related to? Beyond knowing who shares our genetic material in a family—and who might be able to donate a kidney—familial relationships grant to each an identity beyond the self. In spite of modernist efforts to rip us as individuals out by our historical roots, we are not just “a me” freely floating in an abstracted social space. Each of us is “a me” grounded in “an us” and granted the liberty to branch out even further into a more generous “we.” The “we” all of us enjoy as members of a family comes about through conception and birth; we are given to a particular man and woman through pro-creation. Through no fault of our own, we have the families we have in virtue of Mother Nature’s spinning the genetic roulette wheel. The genes land where they land and here we are, complete with a lineage, a heritage, and an inheritance. We do not choose our families nor can we truly leave them behind. What then does Jesus mean to teach us when we says, “…whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother”?

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob picks out the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to be His people, His nation. He is their uncreated origin, and they are—by design and covenant—His children. Like a father, God leads, teaches, disciplines, and provides for His children. He frees them from slavery, marching them across the desert to a place promised them as their own. Once in the promised land, the children establish a nation, a family grounded in the sacrificial worship of their Father under a revealed Law. Though they are ruled on earth by a priesthood and a king, they are ruled from heaven by the One Who took dirt and breathed into each a divine breath. With the words of the prophets, God’s family moves inexorably toward the coming of His kingdom, a dominion governed by His Son, the promised Christ. Those not chosen by God to be members of His people are called Gentiles, unclean outsiders, those not of the covenant. In this closed family there is no way in except by the accident of one’s birth and one’s adherence to the Law once born.

When Jesus makes the shocking claim that “…whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother,” he is directly undermining the fundamental rock of the older covenant; he is teaching those who follow him that God’s family is no longer made up of those born to the Hebrews, those who follow the Law of Moses. Being a son or daughter in the divine family is now a matter of will, of aligning one’s intended purpose and daily acts with the revealed will of the Father. Do His will, become a child of His kingdom. It is really not possible to overemphasize the truly radical nature of this teaching. Jesus is upending centuries of deeply carved instinct and practice. The unclean, the outsiders, those not of the covenant are offered the chance to join God’s family not only as members but as heirs, beneficiaries of His earthly treasure and heavenly wisdom.

A good Jewish boy, like a good southern boy, knows that he risks endangering his life by saying things like, “Who is my mother?” There is no way to ask this question without simultaneously ducking for cover. Even as he speaks, he can hear the wind of the cast-iron skillet whizzing toward his head. And he can hear the indignant voice of his mother yelling, “I’ll tell you who spent thirty years feeding and clothing you!” Jesus risks the skillet and his own mother’s hurt when he denies her to the crowd. For us, the risk is more than worth the price of a bruised motherly ego and a bump on the head. It is worth our inheritance as sons and daughters of a infinitely generous Father. It is worth “me” given the chance to become “we” in the family of the One Who made us, freed us, and draws us in His glory toward a land promised to all who will but do His will.

Taken from

An imperishable stroll

This last Sunday morning I took a walk with my daughter and her dog, Cola, along the levee bordering the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I will never lose my gratitude for being able to live by the water.

When you live by the sea, everything changes, and the change is the same as when you believe in God: you are never alone. There is a Greater Presence next to you every minute. You have to take account of this Presence every day, at least unconsciously…Maybe all the waves are saying is I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU until the end of time. Like God…. — Peter Kreeft

I snapped a few photos along the way.

We had so much fun running along the rocks and laughing about nothing much.

How sad, it came and went as all things must.

Later that Sunday evening we went to Mass. I offered there, in quiet gratitude, all of those lost moments up to God for safe keeping in his imperishable Kingdom.

Spe enim immortālis est.

For today I thought I’d just share some captioned pix with you.


“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.” — William Shakespeare

Wave breaker

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson


“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could she ask? A few flowers at her feet and above her the stars.” — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables


Happy is the man who can with vigorous wing / Mount to those luminous serene fields! / The man whose thoughts, like larks, / Take liberated flight toward the morning skies / Who hovers over life and understands without effort / The language of flowers and voiceless things!” — Charles Pierre Baudelaire

Cola and C

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” — Dr. Seuss



“My body pines for you” — Psalm 63:2

Repost. My decision to repost so much is fundamentally time saving. I also enjoy going back again to see my thoughts. And I am able to rethink, or at least clean up my past work. I hope they are fruitful, even if it’s your second glance.

I was privileged to hear a lecture yesterday by a priest who did his graduate work on the life and spirituality of Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Among other things, he focused on the theme of “thirst,” which, for those who know anything of Mother’s work, features prominently in her mysticism.

Thirst, for her, was a symbol of the human and divine desire to love and to be loved. For Mother, the human longing to love and to be loved was an echo of God’s infinite and eternal longing to love and be loved. There’s a mind-bending paradox in this assertion. The priest said,

God, strictly speaking, has no needs and needs nothing from his creatures. He is self-subsistent, the Unmoved Mover. But, as Pope Benedict tells us in Deus Caritas Est, he is also love. And not just “agape,” which is self-giving love; but also “eros,” that love which is a desiring, yearning, longing, pining, thirsting love that draws God out of his utter transcendence to “come out” into all things in order to enter into a union of love with his creature. Eros-love, the saints say, makes God “mad,” inasmuch as his love drives him to condescend like the Samaritan down into the ditch with fallen man, ready to suffer every darkness and pain out of his desire to achieve full union with us. Union with each of us, personally. Not generically but personally, and in exquisite detail; down to the hairs on our head. And as each soul is absolutely unique and unrepeatable, God’s manner of “coming out” of himself and yearning for this union of love with each soul is also absolutely unique. God’s love for each of us is totally particular, as if only I existed. Even though God’s love for each of us admits of common characteristics, as he was dying on the Cross, burning with thirst for our love, Jesus the God-Man thought of each of us individually, specifically. As he hung there parched with thirst and racked in pain, he thought of me. He endured the “passion of the Passion” out of love for each one of us here in this room. This desire of God for us is no weak thing, but is a raging thirst, like the human experience of being parched, scorched, near death and in a dry desert yearning for the raining response of human love. In fact, by becoming human God has revealed his thirst for us in human flesh. His Passion enabled him to reveal infinite desire in a finite, but still extreme way; as if he were saying, “Look! I am here showing you the beauty and magnitude of my infinite love for you!” This is what Mother’s whole spirituality was about: slaking the thirst of God for human love and the thirst of humanity for divine love. And she went, was sent, to where that love was most absent — into the loveless corners of the world where there was suffering and poverty and rejection on the margins of life; an absence of love. And she brought with her the thirst of Jesus, who is the thirst of God and man joined to become a living fountain.

I was breathless as he spoke, captivated by the beauty of this woman’s vision, and after he finished I struggled to find a way to be alone just for a brief time. I had to recover from this impact. And as I sat and reflected in my office, I recalled the words of St. Maximus the Confessor that I first read back in 1989. I will literally never forget the night I first read these words. In fact, I even remember where I was sitting, holding the Philokalia, as I audibly gasped. Here it is:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

Divine poetry

What took my breath away about this quote was the fact that I had never imagined God, who is Pure Act, could be said to “long” for anything; especially for my response to his love. It revolutionized my prayer life immediately and impacted the way I thought of ingesting the Eucharist. In fact the very first theological poem I ever wrote came to me only a few weeks after I read this text of Maximus. That poem, which I’ve long since lost, was on the mystery of the (as we say in the Nicene Creed) “procession” of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. He is the Person of “pure receptivity” within the Trinity. No other divine Person comes forth from him, which makes him, in a singular way, pure Gift. He is the “Treasury of all blessings,” as the Eastern liturgy names him, precisely because the whole of God is self-emptied into his Person. What a new meaning Pentecost had for me — after the death and exaltation of the Son, Father and Son wholly emptied themselves out in the Church by giving us the infinite Treasury. My God!

I only remember part of one line from the poem. It was part of the stanza that described the Spirit as the substantial-personal “dispossession” of the divinity of the Father and Son. The line was,

O Substance ever possessed,
ever dispossessed.

I remember when I wrote it being amazed at the thought that each Person in the Trinity, wholly identified with the divine Substance (which means whatever-it-means-to-be-God), can only be said to possess that Substance in the mode of dispossession, i.e. to be God means at once to give all away to the Other and, also at once, to receive the Other back. When I wrote the poem, inspired by Maximus’ words, I sensed for the first time that this inner-Trinitarian dynamism was what boiled beneath God’s longing to give “all the fullness of God” to humanity and receive all back from humanity under the form of faith, hope, love, trust, sacrifice. In other words, we mere mortals are, in Christ and the Spirit, drawn by grace into this immortal and infinite mystery of God’s threefold thirst for giving and receiving love.

At the end of his presentation, the priest-presenter shared a story about Jesuits in India who had established an impressive school of Christian apologetics that engaged at an academic level in a robust Hindu-Christian dialogue. The hope was that this dialogue, even as it drew out the riches of Hinduism, would reveal to non-Christian students the beauty of Christianity as the completion of what is true in Hinduism and lead them eventually to conversion. But it produced no converts. Then the Missionaries of Charity set up shop near this university and began to care for lepers. The Hindu students of this school happened on the sisters one day and, on returning to the university, tearfully requested baptism. Why? They said, “only the true God could create such beauty.”

The beauty of charity, of a thirsting love that awaits our consent to receive the self-emptying of God only to get caught up into the boiling Trinity, go out and give away the Substance that can only be possessed in dispossession.

…tell the next generation
that such is our God,
our God for ever and always.
It is he who leads us. – Psalm 48:14-15

Missionaries of Charity, taken from

Holy Artwork, Part I

This still shot (taken from the Russian movie, Andrey Rublyov) of Saint Andrei Rublev for me captures the quality that made this legendary Orthodox iconographer a saint. His vocation, as for all of us, was to shoulder the terrible burden of bringing the Beautiful Kingdom into the grey ruins of a violent, loveless, fallen world. Carrying that out heroically made him a saint. Taken from

2013 repost

Anyone who reads this Blog knows that I am passionate about the lay call to holiness in the secular world. How many lay Catholics are aware that serious sanctity awaits them right where they are, in the midst of worldly cares? When the lay faithful are evangelized, catechized, sacramentalized and sent out into the world embracing their unique call to perfection, a fresh communion of thoroughly secular lay saints can be canonized for their genius:

Laicis indoles saecularis propria et peculiaris est, “What is proper and peculiar to the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium #31

Vatican II proposed as a most effective response to atheistic secular humanism a Christian humanism that is thoroughly secular, i.e. one that affirms created, “worldly” goods as essential to human fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. Much of our historic spiritual tradition is built around a vision of holiness appropriate to consecrated religious and clerical states of life, severely marginalizing the importance of engaging secular reality. But the Council sought to restore the rightful place of the “secular” by locating the world, and its myriad temporal concerns, at the very heart of the lay vocation to holiness. As Bl. Paul VI once said,

And it is in this sense that the Church, and especially the Catholic laity, confer a new degree of consecration upon the world, not by bringing specifically sacred and religious signs (although in certain forms and circumstances the latter are also desirable), but by coordinating it to the kingdom of God by carrying on the secular apostolate through faith, hope and charity. “Qui sic ministrat, Christo ministrat”; he who serves his neighbour in this way, serves Christ, as St. Augustine says in one of his noble pages. It is holiness, that spreads its light over the world and in the world. This is, or rather may this be, the vocation of our times.

Such a vision of a world-consecrating laity fully immersed in secular concerns gives rise to a spirituality not content with mere negations, providing strategies for avoiding “worldly temptations,” important as this can be. Like Christ, who has redeemed the world on a cross outside the Temple walls, the layperson intentionally abides in the midst of the world’s secular affairs while working “for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (LG #31). Or, as Lumen Gentium #38 has it, the laity “must be to the world what the soul is to the body.” The laity belong in the heart of the world. But in order to be the world’s “soul,” laity require a spirituality that empowers them to be fully alive as Christ’s disciples in the world. “In the world, but not of the world,” they can enliven culture and society around them by infusing social and cultural realities with a thoroughly Catholic vision of life precisely because they have internalized that vision. Catholic social teaching, which is all about how one “does the world” according to the mind of Christ, thus becomes for each of the lay faithful their “Way of Perfection.”

Christian Kulturkampf

Lay holiness finds its home, in a particular way, in the midst of human culture. To engage human culture in society, with all of its constitutive institutions, is the privileged means to intimate union with Christ for the lay faithful. By cultivating a truly Christian culture, which is a truly human culture, the lay saint extends the Incarnation of God into every aspect of life. Engaging the social, economic, political, legal, educational, agricultural, business world with the mind of Christ, calling down the Spirit on every moment of one’s day, consecrates the secular world itself to God.

But what does the the Incarnation have to do with secular culture? When God became flesh in Christ, he did not just assume a human body and soul, but drew into his divine life the whole world that was his “home” as a Jew living under Roman occupation. In Jesus, it was God Himself who worked, cooked, ate, slept, sang, danced, laughed, played, walked, argued, learned, taught, wore clothing, developed friendships, cried, suffered and engaged in every other aspect of human culture. All of that worldy “stuff” was, so to speak, swept up into God’s life and became part of the “divine culture” that subsists in the Trinity. (Pause: that thought requires me to catch my breath) Then, at Pentecost, Christ’s Spirit gave birth to the Church (us!) and offered to the whole culture of mankind the opportunity to be taken up into Christ’s Body. In Christ’s mystical Body culture is transfigured and redeemed in and through Christ’s faithful, we who are joined to Christ in Baptism.

Orthodox baptism, taken from

Further, I would argue that the Eucharist itself proclaims this divine plan in a most striking way. What is it that the Holy Spirit transubstantiates in the Mass? Artifacts of human culture, bread and wine! In the Eucharist the gifts of human culture, the work of our hands, are taken up into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. Therefore, Holy Mass teaches us, engaging human culture, or any aspect of temporal reality, can never be seen for Christ’s faithful as a spiritually neutral act. As cultural beings, culture is for us a unique sacramental medium for entering into transforming union with God in Jesus. And the laity, in a way “genius” to them, embody a distinctive “cultural mysticism” which permits no aspect of secular life to escape the influence of God’s sanctifying Spirit.

There are cultural mystics all around us, mostly hidden, who become Christ’s hands, feet, smile, heart in the world…

Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from

An old post dusted off.

I was speaking with someone recently who had attempted suicide several years ago, and she gave me permission to share her insights. Everyone’s experience of depression and suicide is different, but it seems there are here some universal themes. I will offer just a few of those insights she shared.

She was and is a woman of deep Catholic faith.

Just love me

This woman had a number of catastrophic life crises happen to her in a fairly short amount of time and, as a result of the profound trauma, found herself withdrawing from her typically active life and self-isolating. She said it was a protective measure, as she could not talk about her pain with the many people who pressed her with well-intentioned questions and unsolicited advice. She said what she needed more than anything else early on was just silent, consistent, compassionate and non-verbal support. But, she said, most people found that too uncomfortable and maybe even too scary, as her inner world had grown so dark. Everyone wanted to fix her right away, tried to push her to verbalize everything. “I really get the purpose of mourning rituals now,” she said, “because they are pre-scripted ways to express your grief and hurt so you don’t have to talk; just do the rituals. But I had none of those then.” She said she wasn’t ready for fixing, or talking much. She just needed to know she was loved and supported, regardless. “And when I was ready to talk, I’d talk. It was hard for people to get.” The extreme pain was beyond words for her.

I thought to myself, what she really wanted was the “first response” of Job’s friends:

Now when three of Job’s friends heard of all the misfortune that had come upon him, they set out each one from his own place: Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuh, and Zophar from Naamath. They met and journeyed together to give him sympathy and comfort. But when, at a distance, they lifted up their eyes and did not recognize him, they began to weep aloud; they tore their cloaks and threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down upon the ground with him seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering. — Job 2:11-13

Her flight into isolation, she said, included God. She was always woman of daily prayer, but found herself unable to pray. She was numb. Angry. Confused. And soon, she said, she began to lose a sense of hope. “Hope,” she said, “for me, hope is my God anchor. God was always my rock. But God when seemed silent, absent, distant it was scary. When I lost sight of Him I lost my compass, my firm footing. My pain had no meaning without Him. Only He can make it all make sense in the end.” It was in this stretch of hopelessness that she first seriously contemplated suicide, simply as a way to end the pain. And were it not for a fortuitous encounter with a man of faith that helped her turn the corner, she said, she may very well have killed herself. A Christian co-worker gave her some passages from the Bible to read that related to her darkness. They pulled her back from the edge of the cliff. “I read them one day when I was alone in my apartment, and when I got to Romans 8:28, something in me opened; a light turned on.”

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

She was sure she’d heard these words before, but now they spoke to her, she said. “Jesus said them to me. I knew it was Him and that I wasn’t ever alone.” The message for her was clear: give me your pain, let me love you and I’ll restore your hope in my purpose for your life.

Saved by Hope

This made me think of Pope Benedict’s words in Spe Salvi,

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever. The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me…I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”.

This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This woman added one last point that powerfully punctuated her witness: “Without faith in God, who’s love is never not there, it’s very hard to keep hope when life grows bleak. My message to all who struggle with these thoughts is: even while you get help from other people, cling to God and to His Word. He’ll never leave you.”

La Petit Fleur

To end, I’d like to share, without additional commentary, the words of St. Thérèse. Her sister, Mother Agnes, mentioned to her a week before she died how terribly she had suffered. Thérèse replied,

Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation (Last Conversations 22.9.6).

About a month earlier she said to her sister, Agnes:

Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.

Again, another young sister who was helping to nurse Thérèse — Sr. Marie of the Trinity — later shared:

Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.

Words of St. Silouan the Athonite to a young priest who asked him how he might be saved, from