Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

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 keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

 

“His mercy endures for ever” — Psalm 136:1

From “The Passion of the Christ,” taken from bp.blogspot.com

One of the greatest and most awesome privileges that comes with working within the institutional Church is being made privy to countless stories of the human encounter with God, and on occasion I am given permission by some of those I meet to share their stories with others through my writing and my teaching. As yesterday was a day dedicated to overcoming the culture of death with prayer, penance and the witness of lived proclamations of the Gospel of life, I thought I would share the very personal and powerful story of a woman whom I also count as a friend. Though she will remain anonymous, her voice is clear and real and powerful and I have the honor of sharing it with you today. May it bear abundant fruit.

I had two abortions. I was young and unmarried. Though my boyfriend and I had taken every care with contraceptives, something went amiss. We didn’t really want the abortion but we didn’t want to move from our single life into the complexities of family life. We were fortunate to live in a state where abortion was legal. I remembered vividly my high school health class textbook. The section on abortion was illustrated with a shocking photo of a dead, naked woman lying in a pool of blood. That was what happened when abortion was illegal.

My fears were only about myself: that it might hurt, that I might be endangered by the surgery, that it would be embarrassing. I told no one besides my boyfriend. I went to the clinic alone. It hurt terribly and I cried in fear and pain. The woman assisting the doctor chastised me impatiently. “You wanted this, right? So what are you crying for? Settle down.”  I hated her. When the doctor was finished she held a dish by my head, so I could see that they had done the job. The fetus was too small or too damaged for me to recognize, but I nodded anyway.

The second time was like a bad dream revisited. Same boyfriend, same mysterious failure of contraceptives (now used with even more care, since that first accident). Same tears. Impatient words from the assistant: “You’re upsetting the other girls. Calm down. What are you crying for?” I hated her, too.

I did feel relieved after. The problem was solved. It was not unlike finally getting the mouse or bird out of your house: it’s not that you want to harm it. But it just can’t stay. The only way to get rid of it is to keep whacking at it with a broom or towel or call the cat in. Then it’s dead and it’s kind of gross and you feel bad, but at least the problem is solved.

I assumed I’d forget about it. I certainly tried to avoid thinking about it. I skipped any articles about abortion in the news and crossed the street if anti-abortion protestors were out. Though I eventually married I never had children.

Decades later I discovered that God existed. Through His gentle nudges I entered the Catholic Church. I was initially happy to be “mostly Catholic.” I turned my eyes and ears away from the harder words about the dignity of life. After all, lots of Catholics didn’t really buy into all the details. There was room to keep my own opinions, especially about my rights as a modern woman.

The problem was God didn’t share my agenda. I wanted Him. I loved Him with all my heart. I wanted to give Him every breath, every heartbeat, every ounce of my body and soul and mind. I still thought some of it was mine to give. But slowly I realized that it wasn’t. It was all His to begin with. I had no claim to my own life whatsoever. And as that sank in, the ghastly awfulness of what I had done so many years ago became clear.

The most profound expression of God’s love is His creativity. He cares for every hair on our heads, He draws each flower from its bud, He lifts each nestling from its egg, He brings each worm out of its mud-puddle. He loves his Creation. He made me. He loves me. I began to see that the ugliness in what I had done was not in the fact that it left me sad, or hurt, or was unpleasant and a bit shameful. The ugliness was that God had drawn life into my womb and I had spit in His face. He had given me a treasure crafted with the greatest care and I had thrown it in the trash.

My excuses were immaturity, ignorance, self-interest, financial woes, shame, anxiety. My excuses were a defensive maneuver. My excuses were a way of trying to protect myself from the pain of the truth. The truth was I had sinned so enormously that forgiveness was unimaginable. That was terrifying. I deserved an eternity in hell. God had given me my very own existence and the beautiful awakening awareness of His real presence in my heart. And I had despised Him. I was absolutely horrified. That newly recognized truth burned through me like invisible fire. I wept and prayed.

I finally found the courage to tell my confessor. I did not do the clever trick of going to a big city cathedral where the priest wouldn’t know me. I told the priest who knew me. He had heard my many piddling confessions in the past.  I went to him for spiritual direction regularly.  He took confessions in his office, face to face. I got straight to the point, already in tears, hand over my face in shame. He cut me off after the kind and number so I wouldn’t have to go into painful details. I wasn’t the first woman to confess this in his many years of priesthood. We prayed together. God heals.

The fullness of the healing was not instantaneous, but it started that day. It is one thing to know that God forgives, and another to accept His tender touch.  My heart is still wounded. I expect it will be forever, and that seems right and just, as does any reparation my Lord deems fit to require of me. Other women I know who had abortions carry wounds in their hearts, too. I have never met a woman (or man) who found abortion forgettable. Even in old age they remember and regret. What seems possible, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is a healing of the relationship with God, so that in honest acknowledgement of our sin and pain we are brought closer to Him instead of driven away from Him.

In hindsight – after the dust settled and I saw with clearer eyes – I realized there was something unexpectedly beautiful that came out of that difficult confession. We don’t often let ourselves be so broken down. I’m sure it must be similar for those struggling with any mortal sin. It’s so very frightening to drop the justifications and admit how deeply we have offended God. That, truly, must be the transformative moment: not the fear that Father Smith might cringe inside and think poorly of us, but the horror at having offended our Lord and Savior. That is, I think, the acceptance of God’s judgment. God’s agenda, recognized as superior to our own, means a raw reassessment of all our values and priorities. Especially the ones we’d rather not sacrifice.

When we surrender our defenses, give up our pride and throw ourselves in desperation and shame upon His mercy, I think He must weep with joy. My conversion opened the door to go into a terrible darkness I had avoided for many years. Once graced with the courage to go in, the way out was illuminated, and led to the discovery of such an in-pouring of mercy and forgiveness and love that words hardly do it justice. I am so very grateful for that. It has been a few years since that confession, and I am still moved to awe and wonder when I reflect on it.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

“How will you find anything in your old age?” Sirach 25:3

Below is a 2 year old post dusted off for reuse. As I re-read it, it reminded me of two things: (1) Pope Francis’ recent comments on old age and (2) a very moving video of John Fraley playing a song to his Mom who has Alzheimer’s. Here is the quote and then the video:

Harm can also be waged quietly, through many forms of neglect and abandonment, which are a real and true hidden euthanasia.

People need to fight against this poisonous throwaway culture, which targets children, young people and the elderly, on the pretext of keeping the economic system balanced, where the focus is not on the human being but on the god of money.

While residential care facilities are important for those who don’t have a family who can care for them, it’s important these institutes be truly like homes, not prisons, the pope said, and that their placement there is in the best interest of the older person, not someone else.

These retirement homes should be like sanctuaries that breathe life into a community whose members are drawn to visit and look after the residents like they would an older sibling.

+ + + +

Sts. Joachim and Anna, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

With all of the Marian themes abounding in this liturgical season, I found myself reflecting on Mary’s agèd parents, Joachim and Anna, and more generally on the significance of old age in our Catholic tradition. I recalled especially the first reading from Sirach on the feast of the Holy Family, and this line in particular:

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.

That reflection called me back in my memory to two places. First, to a comment Mother Teresa made when she came to visit the hospice I was working at in Washington D.C. back in 1992. She said something like this:

I was asked once who were the poorest of the poor in the United States, and I said it was those elderly men and women in nursing homes. These are so often unwanted, unloved, forgotten, abandoned, and uncared for. Let us not make a mistake. We think of hunger for a piece of bread. The hunger of today is much greater: for love – to be wanted, to be loved, to be cared for, to be somebody.

Then my memory roamed back to a conversation I had while I was in Omaha several summers ago. I was chatting with an older, “late vocation” seminarian about his experience at a non-Catholic nursing home while he was on his pastoral assignment in his diocese. We’ll call the nursing home, “Sunset.” He shared with me a set of insightful and challenging perspectives on ministry to the elderly that knocked my socks off. I told him I had to share his thoughts at some point with others. To that end, here’s a summary of his perspective:

…Every month, a priest would come and celebrate Mass at Sunset. So many of the Catholic residents wanted desperately to go to Mass every Sunday at a local parish, but had no means of getting there. Most of the residents could not drive, of course. Some had children who were fallen-away Catholics, so never wanted to go to Mass anyway. Others found themselves simply alone in their last years, for whatever reason, though some — even many — I found out were estranged from their children, or at least had a terrible relationship. Some had not heard from their children in years, were just plain old neglected by their adult children.

I used to get angry and ask myself, “Why aren’t these local parishes organizing help to get them to Mass?” I understand people are busy, pastors are overloaded with endless ministry demands and that everywhere it’s always those same 10% of the people who do 90% of the work. But if we complain about Mass attendance dropping, let’s do all we can to get all “the willing” there!

We always talk in my diocese about the pastoral priority of youth ministry in our diocese, that the young church is the future church. True enough. But if you think about it, isn’t more true that the elderly are the real future of our church? I mean, eternal life is the church’s ultimate future, and they’re about to face death after having lived a whole life as Catholics. Many of them ask for me to help them die; they’re afraid.

If the real job of the church is, in the end, to make saints, and death’s the time that finally happens or not, the church has to be there walking with them to the very end. And it’s especially these ladies I think about all the time — it bothers me — who gave so much of their time to the church volunteering over the years, passed the faith on to their children, and now, more than ever, they count on the church to help them in the last years of their life to help them prepare for death. I see them lose hope and cry over the lack of reciprocity. The church asked them all their life to pray the Hail Mary, “…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…” But just when “now” and “the hour of death” are about to fuse, they feel abandoned. It’s a crisis and we are just not responding as a church, I think. I feel God has given me this calling, you this calling. First to my own family and then out to others. We can’t make people think church is a NGO, a bureaucracy or programs or clerics who take care of business. It’s me and you. Jesus needs us to love these people; to touch them and smile at them and wipe their drool. Like St. Teresa says, “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

I think the American church should put more pastoral energy into the elderly, and be a sign of contradiction to a cult-of-youth society that thinks of the elderly not as powerhouses of prayer, or as sources of wisdom, or as the generation owed a debt of gratitude by the younger generations, but as a burden and useless drain on resources due the young and the strong. Stop the rhetoric of words to fight euthanasia and start using the rhetoric of deeds. Sometimes I wonder if our particular way of placing emphasis on youth in the church is not as much a faith priority as it is a cultural one we have just swallowed like Kool-Aid. I think that if we as a church cultivated a culture of reverence, service and love for our elders, the youth would be far better served than by any youth-centered youth ministry program we could devise. I’ve seen it — when youth connect with the elderly it’s electric. God shows up.

It really hit me when one lady in her early 90s told me she used to be a devout Catholic, but was so frustrated by failed attempts to get spiritual support from the church. She said that some Pentecostal women, who used to visit a few of the residents, one day asked her if she’d like to pray with them. She was delighted. After praying with her, they asked if she’d like them to visit her several times a week. She said she would love that, and with two words she summarized what she saw as the difference: They did. They would bring her things she’d ask for — toiletries, her favorite candy — and eventually brought her to the nearby Pentecostal church most Wednesday nights and every Sunday morning.

How could she say no?

Bl. John Paul the Elder

I will give Pope St. John Paul II the final word here from his stirring Letter to the Elderly:

In the past, great respect was shown to the elderly. “Great was once the reverence given to a hoary head”, says Ovid, the Latin poet.(13) Centuries earlier, the Greek poet Phocylides had admonished: “Respect grey hair: give to the elderly sage the same signs of respect that you give your own father”.(14)

And what of today? If we stop to consider the current situation, we see that among some peoples old age is esteemed and valued, while among others this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude frequently leads to contempt for the later years of life, while older people themselves are led to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile….

…There is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity. And this process of maturing cannot but benefit the larger society of which the elderly person is a part.

Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in the name of a modernity without memory. Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance.

In view of all this, the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations, inasmuch as every person needs others and draws enrichment from the gifts and charisms of all.

Taken from pelorous.totallyplc.com

“…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” — Matthew 6:20

Taken from media.philly.com

Some sprawling, unfinished thoughts for today…tomorrow I’ll give you time to recover…

I was reflecting several weeks ago on the words of Pope Francis to the little boy who asked about his dead dog. The Pope’s words were far more measured than so many of the “All Dogs Go to Heaven” headlines that followed his comment.  The Pope said,

Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.

In other words, God’s plan to re-create all things in Christ affects not just humanity, but every quark of creation. Bl. Pope Paul VI made a similar point, though he was a bit more specific and daring in his language:

One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.

Peter Kreeft commented on this,

The simplest answer is: Why not? How irrational is the prejudice that would allow plants (green fields and flowers) but not animals in heaven! Would the same animals be in heaven as on earth? “Is my dead cat in heaven?” Again, why not? God can raise up the very grass; why not cats? Though the blessed have better things to do than play with pets, the better does not exclude the lesser. We were meant from the beginning to have stewardship over the animals; we have not fulfilled that divine plan yet on earth; therefore it seems likely that the right relationship with animals will be part of Heaven; proper “petship”. And what better place to begin than with the already petted pets?

And when a friend said to me, what about mosquitoes and predators, I said a bit playfully,

What of mosquitoes?
That’s really easy if you take the biblical language at face value.
What does God do with viscous and predatory beings in the next life? He tames them.
Isaiah 11:6-9:

“Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.”

I find this conversation very exhilarating, not really because I am anxious to see the Church canonize animals, but because of some profound assumptions that stand behind this line of thinking.

“For we are God’s co-workers” — 1 Cor. 3:9

As I have said before in this Blog, I have fallen in love with paragraph 39 in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.” On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.

Why do I find this so captivating? Because it intimately links our life in this world with that of the next in a way that, for me, opens a fresh and thrilling vantage on the meaning of life here on earth. We are charged by God with stewarding this creation into the New Creation, and the New Creation into this creation. What an exalted vocation and mission! The Council tells us in this paragraph that everything in this life that is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8), and the fruit of every virtuous labor and righteous suffering, will endure in God’s everlasting Kingdom. The bread and wine humanity produces, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands,” will serve, in the words of Gaudum et Spes 38, as “raw materials” for the Kingdom the Ascending Christ is ever at work building for us:

Now, the gifts of the Spirit are diverse: while He calls some to give clear witness to the desire for a heavenly home and to keep that desire green among the human family, He summons others to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and to make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs…

These “others,” specifically the laity, are those men and women called at their Baptism to consecrate the world to God, gather material and lift it up into the New Creation by living lives dedicated to secular concerns in the key of Christ. Lumen Gentium 31:

…the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

The vocation of the lay faithful! How sublime. Only in heaven will we fully appreciate their all-important mundane task when we see what was, and was not, offered up to God from the streets and offices, gas stations and hospitals, bedrooms and board rooms, theaters and construction sites, soup kitchens and sweat shops. Don’t get me started.

Cathedral building

Here I will stop writing and paste an email I sent some fellow theology-nerd friends in December after I read Pope Francis’ words. Though I tried to spruce it up a bit here, it’s still unkempt like an email. That said, I hope it offers you a bit of the fire I felt in my bones when I pondered yet again this magnificent mystery!

This comment by Papa Francesco is related to my argument (which is not really mine!) that the New Creation is “built” of material of the old creation (our present home!) transfigured through the liturgical mediation of priestly humanity — those of us living in Christ — consecrating the world to God and gathering, by their virtuous and arduous labors, “material” for the Coming Kingdom; knitting heaven and earth together as homo liturgicus. This reminds me of a story Peter Kreeft introduced me to: Two men were hauling stones through a muddy medieval street. One was cursing and the other was singing. A traveler asked them what they were doing. The curser replied, “I’m trying to get this damned rock to roll through this damned mud!” The singer replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

We are called to sing as we gather living stones, dripping our sweaty sacrifices in our prayer and work. In Christ, God-made-human-laborer, humanity has been empowered to co-construct the New Creation, making, as St. Therese said so simply, even the picking up of a pin with love into immortal treasures. And so nothing-nothing-nothing of our lives that is good – or even the bad material if it’s sunk in divine mercy – will be wasted in building this immortal Cathedral of Paradise for the joy of all creation and the glory of God.

This stunning perspective transforms our view of this world from that of a mere “testing ground” or a “holding tank” where we await release into a “part two” better world. It prevents us from utterly disconnecting this world from what constitutes the Age to Come and reveals our lives lived “on earth as it is in heaven” to be quarrying of “material” gathered by collaborators with God. Our mission is to join Christ in building the Kingdom that is to come by lives that mend the breach, bridge the chasm. We are consecrated by the Spirit to con-celebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven to earth and extending the fruits of the Incarnation to the whole material universe in a living epiclesis [calling down the Spirit].

The Offertory at Mass thus becomes a crucial moment in this mystical transaction as we bind our personal oblation to that of all God’s People united in Christ and lift it up to the Lord with upright hearts. In the Consecration of bread and wine the Spirit seals this mystic transaction by “passing over” the material of this world into that of the Kingdom, causing the substances of bread and wine to collapse into absolute transparency, i.e. transubstantiation. Eucharistic transubstantiation does not imply the bread/wine’s substance is somehow invisibly “siphoned out” and replaced with Christ’s substance, leaving only a shell of accidents, but rather that the very being of those substances (which, as sacramental symbols, also contain in themselves all that we have offered of ourselves to God in the Mass) has passed-over into the new order of being that is the New Creation, i.e. they no longer belong to this order of existence, even though their material characteristics remain in this old creation. Wow, we get to consume that passed-over Food and Drink, the “medicine of immortality” as St. Ignatius of Antioch calls it.

This old-new tension is much like the utterly new Risen Body of Jesus that remained materially accessible for a short time before passing over wholly into the Kingdom, the New Creation, in the Ascension. For 40 days his Body was still tangible and visible, though elusive and difficult to identify even for close friends and clearly no longer obeying the laws of physics. St. Leo the Great says, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.” Mysteries for him means Sacraments. The Sacraments, and all that is taken up into them, share in these sacramentalized characteristics of Christ’s Risen and Ascending Body that is ever at work drawing the whole of creation, via man, into the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

A related thought: all of the supposedly “nature law-breaking” signs and wonders – including the celestial Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, acheiropoieta, “not made with hands” — are actually signs of the passing of this world over into the Next. In miracles, the being of this world, with its constitutive “natural” laws, is giving way to those that rule the Next. So miracles are not violations or suspensions of nature’s laws, but their transformation, transubstantiation, transfiguration and glorious perfection in the coming Kingdom of Christ for which all things were destined. In this sense, all miracles are “liturgical” in character, are boundary-events that tear at the Temple veil and transgress the boundary that, prior to the Parousia, still divides the two Creations.

Getting eschatology right is exceptionally important as it makes clear precisely why this life is so crucial and why the Paschal Mystery is the crown of God’s plan from the beginning. And why secular life, life in this world, possesses an essential role in God’s creative and redemptive plans. What extraordinary grandeur there is in knowing that God established this world so that humanity could participate in the (co)creation of the everlasting Age that we were destined to share with Him from the foundation of the world — “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” And ever life lived in this world, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, possesses eternal value and worth that will be known fully only in that Coming Kingdom prepared for those who love.

I also think here of St. Isaac of Syria’s beautiful comments on the God-loved dignity of this creation appreciated by those saints who already belong to the Next:

“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

Or that unspeakably beautiful liturgical Akathist hymn, Glory to God for all things, written by Fr. Petrov in 1940 as he sat rotting in a Soviet Gulag, that sings this world into the Next — here is just a sample:

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

That’s all for today. Thanks for enduring my esoteric prose. Let’s together, today, tomorrow, and to the end sursum corda, lift up our hearts, and with our hearts lift the whole of creation into that heavenly Kingdom that awaits those who live in hope of its certain coming.

In other words, let’s be like the bodily risen Virgin Mary, God-bearer, icon of all that we hope to be…

The Tilma of Guadalupe, taken from earthdancecircle.files.wordpress.com

Diffusing $100

A simple post today.

My daughter recently sent me a youtube video, “How does a homeless man spend $100,” which many of you may have already seen. It made me think of the medieval philosophical axiom, drawn from neo-platonic metaphysics, that is meant to capture in a phrase the nature of God:

Bonum est diffusivum sui.

Loosely translated, it means “goodness gives itself away.” For medieval Christian theologians, it offered a marvelously simple manner of describing the Trinity of divine Persons, who eternally give themselves away to each other, and the Incarnation, which is God’s self-gift to creation.

Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar expressed this well:

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.

Humanity, made in the image of a self-diffusing good God, is called and gifted to go and do likewise. Personal fulfillment is only to be found in a life oriented toward the fulfillment of others.

So simple, so hard.

Fr. Anthony, my sainted (and now deceased) spiritual director once said to me in a rare moment of personal sharing:

My hope is to die poor, to spend all God has given me.

That’s a handy definition of holiness. The idea also appears in a framed quote hanging on a wall in what I consider to be one of the best movies ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life:

Okay, here’s the video. Enjoy:

Symphonic Faith

Taken from gemeinden-in-berlin.de

In the story I am recounting here, while I am preserving the core narrative and conversations, enough details about the actual person have been altered to make certain no particular person is identifiable.

Over 20 years ago, I knew a gentleman who had converted from atheism to the Catholic faith. He was a very bright man, a successful professional, a dilettantish philosopher of sorts and was filled with great passion for his new-found faith. In fact, I believe he was one of the most creatively articulate apologists for the Catholic position I have personally met, which was remarkable since he had not been Catholic more than a few years when I met him. And he was married.

Then he had an affair.

Deep in the midst of the affair, he came to me to talk. What was clear to me as we spoke was that he was in great inner turmoil, filled with fear for the repercussions of his choices and was looking for a way out that would leave everyone unhurt. He just wanted it all to “go away.” But, of course, that was no longer possible.

Then he made a series of decisions that secured his estrangement from his wife and children. But, for a time, he still felt himself in the good graces of the Church.

After that initial meeting I had with him, he began to avoid me. Finally one day we ran into each other and I, with a forthrightness rare for me, confronted him on the irreconcilability of his decisions with the man of faith I had previously come to know. Then he said something very revealing,

Well, the problem is the Church and I are having a bit of a, well, we just see things differently, that’s all.

I said to him,

Remember, there was a time that whenever you said “we,” you just meant the Church, because that’s who you were. And don’t you see that defending your bad choices hasn’t just broken your relationship with the Church? It has alienated you from yourself — you are a Catholic. It’s like starving yourself to death and then saying, as you suffer its ill effects, “Human nature and I, well, we just disagree on some things.”

What was striking about the shift in his language of “identity” was that it so clearly revealed precisely how his choices had estranged him from the Church. This man who once ardently defended his faith, the Church’s faith, would always use the words “we believe” when he spoke so boldly to his work colleagues or his family or to anyone who was willing to listen to him speak in defense of the Catholic vision of life. Suddenly, he found himself inwardly divided and estranged, unable to profess the unity that is the essence of Catholic identity.

That’s obviously what all sin does in all of us, especially and most tragically when we obstinately refuse to suffer the truth of our failing and falling from grace, our infidelity. His story is, with different details, our story. All of us have our cherished affairs with strange gods. But refusal to repent of those affairs is the death of the soul. It’s what Scripture calls hardness of heart. And it’s what St. Isaac of Nineveh means when he says, “The purpose of this life is repentance.” We are all called to heal within us what C.S. Lewis famously called “the great divorce.”

This man continued to practice his faith for a time, but those who knew him noticed at once a significant change: he lost his apologetic fire and eventually ceased defending the Church’s views and stopped attending Mass. He said later said to someone, “I’m just picking up where I left off before I became Catholic.”

Dissonant Faith

Faith’s beauty emerges from the unified harmony of a symphonic whole. If one particular element of the symphony is changed, with a section of an orchestra choosing to play their own self-crafted score, the intrusion of willful dissonance causes the beauty of the unified symphony to become disharmonious , distorted and ugly. To stretch the analogy, the core of holiness, which is always the manifestation of the well proportioned and arranged beauty of Catholic faith, is cheated of its integral beauty if even one portion of the score or one instrument in the orchestra is scripted and played apart from the inner logic of the whole. The word Catholic comes from the Greek, kath’ holou — kata, “about,” and the genitive of holos, “whole.” It’s about becoming whole.

In 108 A.D, St. Ignatius of Antioch made this same point to priest-presbyters in his letter to the Church at Ephesus:

Hence it is fitting for you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as indeed you do. For your noble presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as the strings to a lyre. And thus by means of your accord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung. Form yourselves one and all into a choir, that blending in concord and taking the keynote of God, you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, that he may hear you and recognize you through your good deeds to be members of His Son. Therefore it is profitable for you to live in blameless unity, that you may always enjoy communion with God.

They believe…I believe

Conversion at core means to make the faith of the Church, which we believe to be the revelation of the mind of Christ, our faith. When I profess the Creed every Sunday, I don’t just mean this is what Catholics believe (“They believe in one God…”), but I publicly pledge, under oath, this is what I believe, this is how I see the world, how I see God, how I pray, and so how I live. Of course, all of us live betwixt and between “they believe” and “I believe,” and none of us, this side of Paradise, perfectly synthesizes the two in our thoughts, words and deeds. Only the Virgin Mary, and Our Lord, lived perfectly harmonized lives. But it is our calling to journey toward this saintly synthesis that is effected by the cooperative interplay of grace and our daily choices.

This New Year, resolve that your daily prayer and work conspire to make of your life a Christ-symphony, a faith which created beautiful harmonies and opens in you a space for Jesus to sing in sync with you (cf Matt. 26:30). Pray also for the courage and humility to daily disown, disavow and renounce all that is contrary to faith in Christ so that you might own, avow and announce Christ in your life.

Daily say Credo with gusto!

Jesus, meek and humble of Heart, make my heart like unto Thine.

Pouring Coffee Beneath the Ascending Christ

“Ite, Missa Est: The Lay Vocation.” Taken from sportishness.com

As was the case yesterday, today I get to reflect a borrowed light and share with you a homily that is too big to remain parochial. This is an Ascension homily preached by a priest whom I have known for years, and from whose witness I have benefited intellectually and spiritually. He wrote me a few weeks ago after he read my “Cultural Mystics” post and said something like, “This is my Ascension homily! I will be preaching on the lay vocation soon.” I think maybe I wept, or at least fell backwards from my office chair onto the floor. I asked him for a copy of it and he graciously gave me permission to post it here. It gives me more joy than I can express to see this theological flame flaring up in the pulpit, and with a homiletic flair and eloquence that would put a smile on the face of old “golden mouth” St. John Chrysostom.

Enjoy and heed his words!

+ + +

Check the Hallmark store and you’ll notice that there are a couple of greeting cards for key moments in Christ’s life. There are cards commemorating Jesus’s birth (Christmas) and there are cards commemorating his resurrection (Easter). But the cards stop there in terms of key events in the life of Christ. Few of us in the United States give out Ascension greeting cards or Pentecost greeting cards. They simply aren’t on the shelves. I looked on the web site of the Printery House, the Christian greeting card and gift ministry run by the monks of Conception Abbey where I used to be a monk for many years. I did find holy cards and icons for the Ascension and Pentecost, although there are no greeting cards for Ascension and Pentecost. These two feasts would seem to be of little importance to many of us.

So beyond being a bit of biblical trivia that we might affirm as true, what does Christ’s ascension have to do with my waking up, pouring my morning coffee, checking email, and heading out to work for the day? How does Christ’s ascension matter to my life and my vocational commitments?

In the first place, the Ascension is critically important to how we understand the relationship of heaven and earth, and the reality of Christ’s sovereignty over all of creation. The problem comes from a very prevalent, but wrong, conception of heaven. Once you start to think of heaven, not as a place miles up in the sky, but as the intersection of the reality of God with us – an intersection that is to us unpredictable and uncontrollable – then you realize that for Jesus to “go into heaven” is not for him to go up as a spaceman miles into space somewhere, and not for him to be distant or absent now. It is for him to be present to us as our Lord and God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul said to the Greeks in the Aeropagus.

Because we haven’t taken seriously what Jesus said in the gospel today, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” we haven’t thought of heaven as the reality of God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” We’ve thought of it like, He’s gone away, leaving us to run things. No. He ascended not in the sense of being beamed up into the sky, but of ascending his throne as Lord of heaven and earth. The Ascension is Christ’s “enthronement.” What began as the cruel mockery, Christ’s crucifixion as King of the Jews, ends with the most surprising vindication. He was indeed King and did receive a throne. Failing to remember and celebrate the Ascension means our Easter season is incomplete.

As our resurrected and ascended king, Jesus gives us a command today. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Very quickly, the last sentence, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Jesus is with us always because no matter how sinful or saintly we may be, no matter how much we may realize and understand this or have no concept of it. First, last and always it is in Jesus that “we live and move and have our being.” Living and moving and having our being in Jesus is not something dependent on us. It is God’s gift, so there is nothing we can do; there is no place we can go to get away from him. As the psalmist says, “O where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your face? If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast. If I say: “Let the darkness hide me and the light around me be night,” even darkness is not dark for you and the night is as clear as the day.”

And the command he give us is “Go, therefore”, in other words, because all power in heaven and earth has been given to me, I command you to “Go…and make disciples of all nations.” So how do we do that? Of course through Baptism, but there is something much more that needs to accompany that and I want to speak about that in terms of how you live that out in your life.

The Second Vatican Council repeatedly outlined and clarified the role of the laity. But we don’t talk about it much or understand it anywhere near what we should. I suspect that the average lay person vaguely perceives Vatican II as a Council which opened the doors of the Church to the spirit of modern world, especially in the areas of liturgy and ecumenism. While there is some truth to this, the Council did much more. But first it is eye-opening to read the warnings of the Council Fathers and St. John Paul II regarding an essential element at stake in this matter of the role of the laity; namely, your salvation.

Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, makes a clear and serious connection between the laity’s life as Catholics in the world and your eternal destination, the fate of your soul:

This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. . . . The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation (GS 43).

Two common problems are pointed out in this quote from the Council: the shirking of responsibilities by those who would focus on their heavenly home at the expense of earthly duties, and, that which is much more prevalent, those who, due to a legalistic compartmentalizing understanding of their faith, divorce the practice of the faith from their everyday life. That tends to be prominent in our culture – faith is something you do on Sundays and something you keep out of the marketplace. This is directly in contradiction to the teaching of the Church.

St. John Paul II alluded to this same message in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, written immediately after the 1987 Synod of Bishops. He said:

At the same time, the Synod has pointed out that the post-conciliar path of the lay faithful has not been without its difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. (CL 2)

In talking about the temptation of being strongly interested in Church services and tasks, St. John Paul II was speaking about the narrowing of vision in considering ministries as those things that are connected immediately to the Church rather than understanding that the essential ministry of the laity is to become “actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world…”

Jesus told us that we are in the world but not of it; that we are citizens of two cities – that of earth, but our true homeland is heaven. Because we are members of both cities we cannot withdraw from the earthly one to focus only on the heavenly one, nor can we withdraw from the heavenly one to focus only on the earthly one. We must be connected to both worlds; in the world but not of it, as Jesus says.

We hear often about a vocation crisis and although there is a real crisis in regard to the number of priests, there is an equally real crisis in the area of lay vocations. A teaching and emphasis of Vatican II is the call – the vocation – to holiness as the essential basis for the Christian life.

This vocation to holiness points the laity towards their proper role: working in the temporal order for the kingdom of God. In other words, your daily life in the world is the particular environment and means for the fulfillment of the lay vocation.

It is your duty to engage in a sort of sacred subversion by which, grounded in holiness and filled with the Holy Spirit, you change the world from the inside, permeating it with truth and light. That is where you find your salvation – the fulfillment of your role in the world to be yeast in the dough, to be sacred guerillas changing the world by filling it with the word of God just as yeast fills dough with the spirit of carbon dioxide. Listen again to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

But by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that, being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially by the witness of their life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they must manifest Christ to others. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be affected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer. (LG 31)

That’s what Jesus means by being yeast in the dough of the world. Again, this involvement of the laity in the world is not an option, but a command given by God, who desires all people to come to salvation. It is also the way in which the laity fully realize their true place and role in the Church. By bringing the Church to the world, the laity brings the world into contact with the Church, the Body of Christ, as the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church says:

The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, and especially by the Eucharist, that love of God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. The laity, however, are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth. Thus, every lay person, through those gifts given to him or her, is at once the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal.” (LG 33)

Each of the baptized has this as a primary vocation, a primary calling by Jesus. By a full response to the call of your primary vocation that you work out your eternal salvation through God’s grace. It is at Christ’s ascension that you received that call and it was handed on to you at your baptism.

So, waking up, pouring your morning coffee, checking email, and heading out to work for the day, make sure you prepare yourself for the work you are to accomplish each day by remembering this simple truth: Christ ascended into heaven and is enthroned as Lord of all creation. He is sovereign over your home and your workplace, over the order forms and the shopping lists, the vacation schedules and the work schedules, even the cranky co-worker. His presence through the intimacy of the Holy Spirit is yours, always and abundantly – in board meetings, in difficult or mundane conversations, in dark dungeons, and in tension filled court rooms. Christ ascended into heaven, and it matters for your life and your work today, because the manner in which you live out the mandate he gives you today will determine your eternal salvation.