20 thoughts on marriage


Repost from summer of 2015, slightly edited

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the Sacrifice without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. — Tertullian, +240

I wrote my thoughts on marriage/family for some wonderful friends, Jordan and Shannon Haddad, who got married on June 13. With their permission I share them here. Above is a photo of their Nuptial Mass (which was truly a mystical experience for many of us there). Say a prayer for them, if you would, that God will bring to completion the good work He has begun in them.

  1. Remember every day that marriage is a gift from God placed like the Blessed Sacrament in your hands, which God has joined. You are Christophers, Christ-carriers. Every dimension of your life is now to become a grace-giving Sacrament, a lived Liturgy, a total Offering, a holy Mystery of divine and human love. Your every gesture, lived in fidelity to your promises, saves the world. Rejoice that you have become God-with-us, embodying His faithful love to us all in a way absolutely and uniquely yours.
  2. Love is the bond that seals you as one and the gift that is poured out for many.
  3. Honor is the guardian of love, so you must show honor to each other and guard each other’s honor, especially teaching your children to honor each of you, their mother and father.
  4. Today you have embraced a vocation to love God in a very specific way: by loving your beloved. Always remember you will love God best by loving your spouse first, and placing all other loves in service to this first.
  5. Today you are surrounded by family and friends, mentors and the whole communion of saints. Remember that your marriage will flourish only in this web of support.
  6. Let prayer be your daily bread. Mutual forgiveness a healing balm. Let laughter give you wings. Allow tears to wash away past sadnesses and open the gates of joy. Make common labor a bond of unity. Keep hope as an anchor. May kindness be always your gentle embrace.
  7. Speak the truth in love with prudence. Keep confidences, but have no secrets from one another.
  8. Multiply small signs of your love. Offer impractical gestures of affection to reveal the sheer giftedness of your marital bond and sprinkle impractical beauties on the practicalities of daily life.
  9. Never let your love grow old, but permit it to mature, deepen, broaden and soar, every day begging the Spirit to stir into flame again the tongues of fire entrusted to you from Heaven. Your marriage is the sacramental fire Jesus came to cast on earth (Luke 12:49).
  10. Your marriage is a garden of virtue and in it you are afforded the opportunity to become great and noble. It is in the protection and cultivation of this garden that your children will come into existence, sprout, grow, bloom and bear fruit.
  11. Bless each other every night. Never go to bed estranged, harboring hurt or anger or resentment.
  12. Protect your face-to-face time. When you have children, create a “bubble” of time and space every day just for each other. Guard it with your lives!
  13. Before you turn outward in self-gift toward others, turn upward toward God in petition and inward toward each other in love. Your God-centered marriage is the axis around which your whole world must turn. Always return to each other after you have given yourselves for others.
  14. Strive for a well ordered love, because disordered love is no love. Disordered love is a seedbed for conflict and stress. Plan your lives, your priorities, your time together. Don’t let your calendar dictate to you but you dictate to your calendar. Reverence each other’s unique gifts in this work of planning and build on them.
  15. Know each other’s weaknesses and help each other to grow. But never use one’s weakness or failure against the other. That’s a betrayal of trust. We are made in weakness that we might supply for each other. Each of your weaknesses should be an opportunity to encounter the grace of Christ (1 Cor. 12:9). Learn to laugh at your own folly and to laugh with the other over your follies and their. But never laugh at the other.
  16. Choose your battles wisely. Some things must be endured in patience, other things require change. Allow the other to retain their uniqueness and rightful differences. St. Augustine helps us here: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Discern together and, when necessary, seek counsel from others to help each of you have the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
  17. Know that some of the sweetest joys in life are found in your life’s trials and hardships, when they are faced together in trust and love. Cling together to Jesus in your Sacrament and He will make them fruitful. Don’t be afraid of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” God orders all things for good in your marriage because you love him (Rom 8:28).
  18. Be unrelentingly faithful to each other in body and mind. Fidelity is the bedrock of trust. Everything rides on fidelity.
  19. Remember God, forget yourself.
  20. Know you are daily gathering materials for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and nothing you do, consecrated to Him, will be lost in that “eternal and universal kingdom; a kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of holiness and grace; a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” May we all one day join again there to forever rejoice in the beauty of your life together, begun today. May it be so. Amen.

Pater Noster

Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. yourspiritualtruth.files.wordpress.com

The other day I happened on a very moving setting of the Our Father done by St. Vladimir’s Seminary choir. It was at the end of a long day at work, full of difficulties, and listening to it brought a profound sense of consolation. Before leaving work, I wrote down some thoughts in my journal on the meaning this prayer evoked in me at that moment. Here’s an excerpt:

Jesus gave the Our Father right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. St. Matthew’s masterful recapitulating of the Mount Sinai revelation of God’s will for worship, like a hyper-compressed, in nuce and perfected Book of Leviticus. Leviticus prepared for the Temple worship of Zion from whence would come the Temple prayer-book, the 150 Psalms — which are also hyper-compressed in the Our Father. Jesus’ model prayer also sums up the whole Gospel. It’s a neutron star. St. Augustine said it well:

Run through all the words of the holy prayers [in Scripture], and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Our Father is also an extended consent to God’s action. But Jesus does not have us say “yes” to just any abstract or impersonal Deity. No! It’s addressed to a Father, and Jesus makes it clear that Father looks, acts, sounds just like Him. John 14:9, Jesus is the Father’s great exegete, interpreter, mouthpiece, as in John 1:18’s exēgēsato. By heading His new prayer with Father, or in keeping with His dialect, Abba, everything else said in this prayer to God is meant to be prayed in the key of trust and love. It’s no coincidence that the only example of Jesus using Abba is in Mark 14:36’s agony in the Garden, the moment in His life when the provident God seemed least Abba-like. Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6 remind us that the Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’ own “crying out” relationship to the Father — especially in our Gardens of agony.

God is addressed in St. Matthew as a Father “in heaven,” a Jewish circumlocution employed to preserve the irresolvable tension between God’s extreme otherness and extreme nearness. He is, after all, the Terror of Isaac (Genesis 31:42) and Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14) who attracts (Ex. 3:3) and repels (Ex. 3:5). We must keep in mind, every time we pray these words, that we are being very daring. The Orthodox liturgical preface the Lord’s Prayer says it this way: “And grant, O Lord, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon you the Heavenly God as Father and to say…” St. John also captured this tension in Rev 1:17-18 when the Risen Jesus revealed Himself:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

While the Lord’s prayer is a consent to the Heavenly Father’s action, by consent we don’t mean resignation to God’s omnipotent manipulation of our actions. This form of consent, rather, is a deeply involved and entirely free consent that allows God uninhibited reign within our lives, allowing Him to co-define the meaning of our freedom. That’s what we do, for example, in marriage. My “I do” allowed Patti to become part of the shaping of my whole life, opening up the possibility for us to cooperate and give birth to something genuinely novel: a synergy of two-in-one-flesh. When we say Yes to God, He becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without our Yes, no Emmanuel. Mary is the perfect icon of what is true for all of us, for only when she said Yes was the Word made flesh and God became Emmanuel. When God is our Emmanuel, we pray like this:

That is why I love your commands
more than finest gold,
why I rule my life by your precepts,
and hate false ways. — Psalm 119:127-28

In the Our Father’s first three petitions, the verbs used are in a form scholars call a “divine passive” (passive aorist imperative) form. As I gather (I am no linguist), this verb form indicates (1) the primary actor is God; (2) we are entreating God, in an imperative (command) form, to act; and (3) we are the primary recipients of His action.

Just think of it! Listen to the boldness of these verbs. Jesus gave us permission to issue God commands to act. How remarkable! We say: “God, do this!” But what is it we command God to do? Hagiasthētō to onoma sou means, “let your Name be holy”, elthetō hē basileia sou means, “let your kingdom come” and genēthētō to thelēma means, “let your will be done.” Really, all three of these mean essentially the same thing — Eternal God, be who you are toward us, do your thing in us, through us, with us. “On earth as in heaven.” In heaven God’s will is sovereign, and now on earth we grant Him permission to reign as King.

Then the next four petitionary verbs in the Our Father continue with the same posture of receptivity before God. But now there’s a much more specific focus to these begging-imperatives for God to act: Give us! Forgive us! Lead us not! Deliver us! Like the prayer to the divine shepherd in Psalm 23, these four petitions presuppose a God who provide us with a superabundant feast in the presence of our enemies (whom we also forgive with God!). After we ask Him to feed us, we implore Him to redeem us from ourselves and then from our foes, whom we forgive. What?

Note also that, in light of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we know well that the actualization of this Prayer’s seven petitions is accomplished by means of us! We are to bring Kingdom-goods to haters by renouncing anger, lust, divorce, lying, retaliation, judgment, anxiety; and by practicing love for enemies, forgiveness, blessing, almsgiving, prayer, fasting and the Golden Rule. All these are requisite elements of the reconciled and reconciling community of God’s Kingdom come. And they are the direct effect of praying those seven petitions to our Father. Yikes! The use of “our” emphasizes the extension of God’s fatherhood to all humanity: weeds and wheat, friends and enemies, good and evil, saints and sinners (Matt 5:44-45).

Totally wild…the “our/us/we” is perfectly realized only in Jesus whose “catholic” humanity is humanity’s “Our” in the most mind-blowing way: He is the new Adam in whom all of humanity is recapitulated. The “total” Christ, both Head and Body, is both God and man, Bridegroom and Bride, Creator and Creation all reconciled into one new Mystical Person (Col. 1; Eph 1; Eph 5; Gal 3:28). Jesus is the posture of God toward fallen humanity (John 3:16) and the posture of fallen humanity toward God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

More amazing. The very One who teaches us this prayer is Himself the Name above all names, the Kingdom in person, the doer of the Father’s will, the Giver and Gift of our super-substantial (epiousion) Bread, the Pardoner and the Pardoning of all debts, the Liberated Liberator who yields us not to temptation and delivers us from all evil. In fact, Jesus is the Father’s Response to every one of these seven petitions.

Mind blown.

When I pray, I must be fully ready to accept the implications of all seven petitions. What am I saying? I am giving permission for God to act with uninhibited freedom to inaugurate in me — in us — His in-breaking Kingdom. I am saying, “Father, eradicate at will anything in me that impedes the coming of the Kingdom of your Son into this world, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.”

All that packed into a prayer that takes less than a minute to verbalize.

Next time you pray the prayer Jesus gave us, mean it.

Now join me in praying with the St. Vladimir Seminary choir:

Judge, no more

U2’s Bono meets St. John Paul II

I mentioned earlier, I am not easy with the term ‘countercultural’, because it sometimes connotes self-hatred. There is truth to the claim that the Catholic believer must sometimes stand boldly apart from his or her culture and speak a word of prophetic critique; but, at its limit, the claim to be countercultural strikes me as incoherent.

Whether we like it or not, we are shaped – linguistically, intellectually, relationally, bodily – by the culture in which we live. To stand completely outside of our culture is, impossibly, to stand outside of ourselves. More to the point, the language of counterculturalism can give rise to an attitude both mean-spirited and condescending. A culture is transformed only by those who love it, just as individuals are converted only by evangelizers who love them. — Francis Cardinal George

Mark Judge is a conservative author, columnist and art critic. I have read him with great interest over the last five or so years. He said a year ago that he was leaving the Catholic church because he believed the Catholic Church in America was not interested in supporting what was his life’s vocation: to bring faith and pop culture into a serious dialogue.

I am not interested in contesting his logic or responding to his reasons for abandoing the Church — though there is much to be said in that regard. I simply wish to say that he took with him a vision the Church already possesses and desperately wishes her sons and daughters to make a reality: inculturating the Gospel. Let me share a few excerpts from his apologia of departure:

I’m not angry, like so many other ex-Catholics. I don’t have a problem with the Catholic Church’s position on sexual morality. I didn’t have a bad experience with a priest, or resent any nuns that taught me.In the end, I left the Catholic Church because as an artist I could no longer hold out hope that there would be a place for me in the church. The Catholic Church, which gave the world the Sistine Chapel, Dante, and the genius filmmaker Robert Bresson, has lost interest in supporting artists. God is a dynamic and creative universal force who can be found in movies, rock and roll, and poetry.

The Catholic Church is no longer a relevant player in any of those fields, or in the arts in general.

I was raised by an Irish-Catholic family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My father was a journalist, poet, amateur painter, and something of a Catholic mystic. He had gone to college at Catholic University of America in the 1940s, during what was a literary high point for the church. In 1948 Columbia graduate Thomas Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, a lyrical autobiography that became a bestseller. In 1951 Bishop Fulton Sheen began a hugely popular weekly television show, Life Is Worth Living. That same year Diary of a Country Priest, a brilliant and moving film directed by Robert Bresson, was released. Catholicism and the arts seemed go together.

Then the 1960s happened. Vatican II, the church council convened by Pope John XXIII, exhorted the faithful to go out and engage the modern world. To some conservative Catholics this was disastrous, because the world at that particular time was falling apart.

I have asked prominent Catholic scholars and theologians why the Catholic Church has no foundation, think tank, fellowship or even website for the study of popular culture. St. Augustine wrote entire volumes about paganism, and in doing so managed to baptize millions of new converts. Surely something, perhaps a single fellowship at a Catholic think tank, might not be a bad idea?

In reply came only silence — or worse, contradictory and incoherent arguments. I was lectured that the Kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and I shouldn’t be so passionate about rock and roll, movies, and other efforts of the secular culture. Soon after I would hear that when Jesus said “the kingdom of God is at hand” it meant that Jesus himself had ushered in a new age, that everything was different now, and that God is now present in the world.

If the second is true, then I want to capture it. I want to film it, write about it, and sing about it. And I want to celebrate others in the culture who do the same. Sadly, it’s been decades since any of the good ones have been Catholics.

We need filmmakers, cartoonists, dreamers, and novelists. We don’t need more think tanks. We need romantics and God-seeking artists. Ten years ago this February, Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ. Rather than a ham-fisted and hectoring right-wing lecture, it was, particularly in the early scenes, a work of gorgeous mysticism. In the decade since, conservatives have done little to follow up. There have been some bright spots, perhaps, pointing to the power such projects can have. There was the television miniseries on the Bible, for example, which had a huge following, and is now set to become a feature film this spring. Some websites, such as Acculturated, have started to engage and review popular culture. But these remain only fits and starts. How many conservative donors have started film production companies or funded graphic novels, comic books, videogames, or apps that stand out in the mass culture? Are there grants for artists alight with the desire to create art, an art that serves God and beauty, grants for those who might not be policy wonks or blonde newscasters?

People don’t hate us [conservatives] for our ideas. They hate us because we consider it silly when someone adores a movie, is moved by a comic book, or is smitten with a pop song. They hate us because we have no poetry. We don’t see—as the left has—that poetry moves more than policy. We should be hiring and engaging with the weirdos and rock-and-rollers who will blossom into the intellectuals who affect the culture.

It’s why I am so serious about engaging the work of Twenty One Pilots.

Here’s to hope that this vision Mark wanted to enflesh as a Catholic continues to become #realitycatholic. JP2, take us out:




During my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my Confessor pummeled me for my tendency to wrest my life free from dependence on God. He said,

…son, your strongest attachment is not to things, but to yourself. You need to decenter your self-reliant focus and fix your eyes on Jesus. Surrender to Him the need to have everything under control, for all the loose ends to be tied up. There’s way too much “you-focus” in all this. You leave almost no room for grace to operate. You’ve put God in a straight jacket. Open up your hands and let God into your open palms, just as He does with you [Isaiah 49:15-16!]. Give Him permission to see everything inside of you. Stop trying to white-knuckle your way through life.

… Your accomplishments are good gifts for Him, that’s always true. But you don’t begin there. He’s really not impressed. But He’s delighted, because He loves you. Begin with your poverty, start with your life as a pure and undeserved gift. When you pray first thing every morning, sit in silence just long enough to be poor. Let Him see how poor you are along with all the riches you’ve gathered up for Him. If you give it all over, the few loaves and fishes of your poverty and riches, He’ll multiply them. You see, only then will He at last find some room in there [he pointed to my heart] to join you in your work, and stop having to remain as a mere spectator. He’s knocking today, now, here, and He’s asking you, Tom, He’s pleading with you right now: Open wide!

And don’t worry, you’ll still work just as hard as you do now. In fact, you will work even harder because it will flow more and more from love. And it will be more working with Him than just throwing stuff at Him … [Before absolution, he said] Okay, Tom, here’s your penance. For your hour of prayer at 3 o’clock today, I want you to just sit before the crucifix in church. Get over yourself. Okay? Give it all over to Christ. Pay attention to His hands. They’re open, not grasping. Open for us, for the Father. They’re held fast by the nails, limited by His weaknesses. But when they’re open like that, their reach is without limit. Yours will be, too …

Now, I would like to invite you to listen to this Twenty One Pilots song, in light of my journal meditation. It’s brilliant. Hear in it the beauty of a desire, born of faith, to stand naked before God in total truth, hands wide open, singing with abandon to the Sky.

The song is called Screen. I have two versions. First, the mashup cover done by my ukulele-strumming daughter Maria and her harmonious friend, the tektōn [artist] Ashley. Second, the Twenty One Pilots version. Lyrics are below:

I do not know why I would go
In front of you and hide my soul
‘Cause you’re the only one who knows it,
Yeah you’re the only one who knows it

And I will hide behind my pride
Don’t know why I think I can lie
‘Cause there’s a screen on my chest
Yeah there’s a screen on my chest

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I can’t see past my own nose, I’m seeing everything in slo-mo
Look out below crashing down to the ground just like a vertical locomotive
That’s a train, am I painting the picture that’s in my brain?
A train from the sky, locomotive, my motives are insane
My flow’s not great, okay, I conversate with people
Who know if I flow on a song I’ll get no radio play
While you’re doing fine, there’s some people and I
Who have a really tough time getting through this life
So excuse us while we sing to the sky

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

Oh oh oh
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh
We’re broken people, oh

We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh
We’re broken people, oh yeah

We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh
We’re broken people, oh yeah

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

Poetry of a royal priesthood

Sunrise over Jerusalem. omsi.edu

We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity—not all of them but many—ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path. This moment in history cries out for mature, intelligent, zealous and faithful lay leaders in an urgent way. Priests and bishops cannot do the work of laypeople. That’s not what Christ called us to do. It’s not what the Church formed us to do. Our role as clergy in bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ, flows through you lay men and women who hear the Word of God; who love the Church for the truth she teaches; and then bring that Catholic witness into society to change it and sanctify it in Christ’s name. Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matter eternally. Laypeople, not clergy, have the task of evangelizing the secular world, and only you can do it as God intended. So never be embarrassed by your baptism. Never be afraid of the consequences of your faith. Take pride in your Catholic identity for the blessing and mandate it is. Act on it. Share it with others. — Pope Francis

As an addendum to my laity posts the last few days, I would like to share a poem I wrote the morning after the final exam in my Spirituality of the Laity class back in 2013. I wrote it sitting outside our home, watching the sun rise in the east.

The poem tells the divine backstory of the laity’s call to “consecrate the world to God.” This story runs from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21, from creation to the end of the ages.

So, for what it’s worth:

God-breathed clay,
entwining Image, two-in-one,
flesh God-pressed, marked
by a threefold King:
a daughter, a son.

Both made to lift low Higher
and call down immaterial Fire:
the Father’s very own God from God
falling down in Spirit co-breathed:
Their lovely Life-giver, as yet un-grieved.

But Lo! Lament!
Their kindled earthen-vessel fire
fell down far into wreched mire.
But Love unquenced, unthwarted,
became a crazed Bridegroom,
and adulterous love he courted

By descending far too far,
fleshy dark and deathly low
into our mad and raving folly,
falling beneath our vicious blow.

Graying is our slain-God,
bled dry of His immortal Blood;
lying cold, asleep in a wicked grave
while His weeping bride cries:
Arise unchained, my Love, and unchain us all.

All-drenching Flesh, Risen! Soak us
out of Your gaping, wounded Side
and drain forth Your whole Spirit-tide
seaming for us a heavenly-earth,
our nuptial chamber, our bath of rebirth!

And so it was, the Eighth Day dawned
With Love spreading far-wide, deluging,
drowning mortal death; our Refuging
within His sacred Wounds’ outpouring Flood
whetting our parched, lifeless bones:
O God, breathe Your flesh-knitting Breath
And roll away our heavy stones!

Why, oh why all this?

Love alone.

Your soiled Bride washed now, purely wed,
embraced and swept up God-ward
into one sacrificial Flesh: Take. Eat.
Become My Food that feeds
Scatter my life-giving Seeds.
It is I who fill the starving with Bread,
I who inebriate the joyless dead,
Turning them drunk in self-forgetful love;
Making of their earth a new heaven above.

O Jesus, stone-shattering God-quake
of sudden all things new do make:
God-kneaded, Christ-infested
earthly heaven, heavenly earth
born again in watery second birth
where Old passes out into New
ever-so quietly as a morning dew
onto our open, uplifted laboring hands
that join the work of angelic bands
whose Opus is no more than to sing:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
to the re-creating majestic King!

To the Fashioner of that World to Come,
who built His City of our tired clay, let us sing!
Tears and labor, love for neighbor now bring
to His tearless Banquet, this Feast without alloy,
of love and justice burning with peerless joy
torn from the Heart of a God who gives without measure;
a God whose joy is ever the Other’s good-pleasure;
the God who gave us hope of one unending Day
where at last we can join, forever,
in Their thrice unending child’s play.

Lay Geniuses, Part III


[Alas, the third and final installment! Apologies for any and all grammatical issues as I had no time to edit]

There are two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they 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 … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world. By practicing honesty in all their dealings they attract all to the love of the true and the good, and finally to the Church and to Christ. They fulfill their mission by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hopes of all people, thus quietly preparing others for the workings of saving grace. — Christifidelis laici

When my wife and I lived in Brandon, Florida, we came to know a man who lived in central Florida and was very involved in an inner city outreach to youth who had run away from home to join street gangs. He had reverted to his Catholic faith about five years before we met him. He worked for a fairly large consulting firm and was married with three children. He said to me that before his personal conversion, he was like most guys his age: worked hard, played hard, drank hard and was willing to cut moral corners when it served his interests. He shared with me his remarkable faith journey story, and gave me permission to share a few parts of that story in my teaching work. I will share a small portion of one of those stories here because it so perfectly illustrates my point. I’ll call him Simon.

Only days after his life-changing spiritual awakening, Simon was at work. It was break-time and, as was the custom at the end of a weekend, his male co-workers gathered to talk about their weekend adventures. “The day had come,” he said, “when, even though I knew I was a different man inside, I now had to call up the courage to go public and face the heat.” His co-worker buddies began to engage in what was previously his favorite part of this Monday morning tradition: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories”, i.e. they would each take turns sharing explicit details of sexual experiences with hook-ups, girlfriends or even their wives. He said it was a combination of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked. Then he said a simple prayer to himself, “Help me God.” He decided in that moment that, instead of condemning the practice, he would just tell a story about his wife to honor her. Nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly. One guy said, “What the hell man. That’s a f-ing downer. What’s up with that?” He said he tried to (very awkwardly) share his recent experience of God. A few of the guys responded with mild ridicule and a few “Jesus-freak” comments. But one of the guys came up afterward and asked him in private, “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?” That coworker eventually became Catholic. Soon after this experience, the Monday morning group stopped meeting. And over two or so years, the influence of these two men brought about a culture change within the firm.

It’s dangerous to speak the mind of God into the City of Man, especially in our post-Christian culture that has declared the Christ and His Church to be mentally ill. But Christians are martyrs at heart and, in their finer moments, have always been the world’s greatest risk-takers — willing to chance being labeled by the world as a fool in order to lead that world back to God. All the gifts of grace and nature, of Sacraments and Scripture, of Religious and clergy are at the service of birthing Christian men and women who live their faith on the front lines, outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing Christ into culture. For these secular saints, holiness emerges from their wholehearted and Christ-minded engagement in civic life, culture, business, economics, education, politics, science, technology, the armed forces, agriculture, marriage and family life. These serve as the altar on which they offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God for the life of the world (Rom. 12:1).

The Church needs secular saints whose vibrant life of prayer, participation in the Sacraments and in the Church’s communal life throws them back out into the secular world as their native place of flourishing. We need secular saints ready to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world, saints who flip over every bushel basket to expose the light of Christ in the darkness. We especially need young people falling deeply in love with Jesus, who find their hearts burning to be the social, political and cultural movers and shakers. The Church’s evangelizing strategy has always been to send out culture-making “creative minorities” who are capable of effecting local transformations that feed into broader cultural revolutions. In the past, most of these have been clergy and Religious. But now the Church, kindled by the Spirit, says with special urgency to the lay faithful: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) by “doing the world” God’s way with that genius that is specifically yours.

The Church’s sacred ministers must help lay men and women in this vocational discernment and encourage them to persevere in their very challenging secular mission. These laity must come to see that their mysticism is not world-fleeing but thoroughly incarnational, wrapped up in God’s self-emptying entry into the ordinary world of family and culture, trade work and play. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings.” These words of the Council set out a spiritual vision for the lay faithful that they might be fully aware that, for them, union with Christ comes about by means of their radical solidarity with the world.

Only a laity invested with this vision of the spiritual life can possibly serve as wellsprings of a new culture and civilization. Only secular saints can give rise to new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salesmen, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors and nurses, new digital evangelizers, each of whom excel in their respective field while being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

To be a secular mystic
is to see the intimate bond
between the board room and the indwelling Trinity;
between the bedroom and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
between taking out the trash on Wednesday morning
and taking up the Offertory on Sunday morning;
between harvesting grapes and thumbing rosary beads;
between tailgate parties and the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Without this vision,
one will never discover the way of perfection
in real life,
wherein God lurks in the dust and in the fire.
Secular mystics
must embrace this inextricable bond
if they are to see the glory that fills heaven and earth.
Here abides a most extraordinary truth:
in Christ God made the most
mundane, secular, worldly activities
His own; divinized them
and rendered all of them capax Dei,
“capable of God.”
Learning to love the world with the God
who so loves the world
is the key to lay sanctity.

Secular geniuses set the world free to be itself. The Church must be fiercely dedicated to inspiring the lay faithful become these secular mystics, to become Christ’s Body speaking all languages, living in all states of life, mastering all cultures. These world-wise Catholics stand ready to dialogue with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to promote this absurd idea that the really serious, converted and faithful Catholic must dwell in sacristies and sanctuaries, always doing religious things, and are only really “working for God” if they are doing ministry. When we indiscriminately encourage the lay faithful to abandon their worldly careers, secular interests, secular ties or, most terrifying of all, their marital and family priorities, we renounce the mission of the Church given by Jesus. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries and religious practices are always to be seen as servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way.

Let me end this obscenely long reflection with a final story.

I had a conversation with a young Catholic student at Florida State University that he graciously allowed me to pass on. He once mentioned to me that after his conversion to Christ he felt guilty and dirty every time he did anything that wasn’t religious or churchy. He said:

I feel like I always have to be doing church stuff to feel like I’m close to God. I mean, I totally enjoy all those things, but I feel schizophrenic. I feel like every time I do something outside of the religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with my non-religious friends or talk about sports or other secular stuff I feel like I’m somehow settling for less. I mean even if I’m not really doing anything wrong I still feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it. It feels like religious and secular things are oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff. It’s like life after a bad divorce. Everything seems tainted by the split.

I told him that his previous lifestyle that involved sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had saddled him with a long and hard journey ahead. Fusing faith with a dis-integrated moral character is hard work, and I told him he’d have to endure lots of purifying grace from God that would require years of persevering struggle. But I also told him that is what would make him a great saint! But I also told him that if he continued to embrace this divided worldview he would always feel caught in an unresolvable conflict, and that if he remained stuck there too long he would be mightily tempted to abandon the faith, to become lukewarm or try to hide from the world and isolate. He went on to finish his pre-med work and is now in medical school. And he has persevered, thanks be to God.

19th century English Poet Charles Swinburne famously decried what he saw as a bloodless, world-hating Christian vision of life, saying of Christ:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…

We must belie that accusation and become artists who reveal the infinite colors God has given to the world. We must be the apologia for Pope Benedict’s words, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” We Catholics go to Mass, pray the rosary, go on pilgrimages, spend holy hours in church, become involved in ministries, talk about God just as we read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, go to a movie, feed the hungry, play cards with our kids, tinker with the car, go hunting, play pool, cultivate excellence in our professions, learn to dance, enjoy sports, read a good novel, make love to our spouse and sip a glass of Chianti with a friend while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter. And all the while talking about the world. All these things precisely because we are called to be holy, and make the world so, too.

It all matters, as Steven reminds us:

Lay Geniuses, Part II


“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all down on your head.” — Flannery O’Connor

I have worked within the institutional church for 26 years. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by devout secular-career Catholics over the years, “I wish I could work for God like you do.” Before reading John Paul II’s magna carta on the lay vocation, Christifidelis laici, I would probably have agreed with them at some level. I may have subconsciously thought I was in possession of a real luxury to do God-stuff most of the time. In fact, I vividly recall an encounter where this tension came up in an assaulting way.

I came to know a Catholic gentleman who was a professor at Florida State. When I met him, he had only recently come back to the faith after attending a men’s retreat at a friend’s invitation. He expressed to me one day over a cup of coffee his painful feeling of regret that he was trapped in a worldly job at a secular university. He grieved the fact that, because of his busy work and family obligations, he could not get more involved in parish activities and ministries and prayer groups. One day over lunch he told me that he really envied my job, getting to work “so close to God” every day. I recall stumbling for a reply to assuage his sadness, and said something like, “God will reward your sacrifices.” I think I also managed to protest my unworthiness to serve God in the way I was able to as a church employee. At least that was a start.

Later that same year (1996 or so) I happened on Christifidelis laici. I read it through in one sitting. I recall being so captivated by its message. After I finished reading it, I wrote in my journal for about two hours. I wrote, “How did I miss this? How did this not come up in my graduate degree work? This is revolutionary.” The next week I decided to write that FSU professor a letter. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to him:

…I’m writing to finish our conversation the day we met for coffee. I was of no help to you that day, but I think I have something worthwhile to say to you today…

… Yes it’s a privilege to work for the church as a layman. I try to never take it for granted. It’s a grave gift and responsibility! But you have to know our Pope’s teaching is that it is I who am the abnormal layman seeking holiness by doing church work. A blessed abnormality, but abnormality nonetheless. I am the exception, not the rule. You are the rule, not the exception. The universal call of the laity is to become saints by consecrating the world to God by living and working within it. Like leaven kneaded into dough, or like a soul needs a body, the secular world needs you.

…And my vocational abnormality exists for one purpose: to serve your vocational normality. I am set apart to serve you who are sent out. Your calling and mission in the world is the essential reason priests, Religious and laity like myself are “set apart” from the secular world. We are set apart not because we are an elite class, better and holier. We are set apart so that we might serve you. Set apart to inspire, encourage, educate, pray for and support your calling to be in the world, in your family, consecrating the whole of it from the inside out. If monks and nuns are called to consecrate their lives to God by renouncing this world to remind us laity that earth was made for heaven, we laity are called by God to live our lives immersed in this world to remind Religious that heaven is made of earth consecrated by our lives.

…As a man with a secular career, who is a married with a family, you are an exemplar of who and what the laity are called by God to be in their highest and noblest manifestation. As a Catholic layman you are on the front lines of the Church, struggling to bring light to darkness, joy to sorrow, truth to falsehood, faith to a faithless world in order to lift it back to God in thanksgiving. When you are away from parish activities you are not simply absent, but sent. You are church wherever you are, drawing close to Christ in the world and drawing Him close to the world …

He called me the day he got my letter and said, “Tom, you cannot imagine what you did for me. I feel like an enormous weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders, or like scales have fallen from my tear drenched eyes…”

The laity are first and foremost to be fully engaged citizens of this world, serving as an outpost of the City of God in the City of Man. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium put this forcefully:

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.

In fact, the Council continues, failing to be a faithful citizen of the temporal world is eternally risky business:

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.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The lay faithful who neglect their temporal duties, neglect their duties toward neighbor and even God, and jeopardize their eternal salvation.

Last summer I had a long chat with a priest I know who is a college campus chaplain. We were discussing the trend among younger on-fire, orthodox Catholics to dissociate themselves from secular life. I wrote down in my journal some of my insights from that conversation– here’s a snippet:

… Being insulated in church circles is much safer, less conflict. Especially for those who’ve had sudden conversions to Christ after having lived lives of moral wreckage. Obviously it’s important to be rooted in a strong faith community, and living the faith in a culture that grows in hostility toward religion is a serious challenge. These young men and women are suddenly thrown out there as signs of contradiction. There’s loads of dissonance between the song you’re singing and the ones others are singing. Being called to love our broken world God’s way is a really crucifixion; like living in the Colosseum and choosing during every moment of your years-long martyrdom to joyfully love the jeering crowds and your heartless executioners because you want them all to join you in the Kingdom. Being a faithful layperson promises a life of sustained tension, living between furious opposites. But Chesterton told us tension is precisely the point of our mission: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

Working and living outside the sanctuary safe-zone as sojourners at home in the world is fraught with ambiguities and ragged edges. The church, especially its catechists and pastors and preachers need to let the church be herself toward the lay faithful. She’s good Mother and good mothers make home a safe place come to, rest, be renewed and encouraged. But they also know their children were born to do out into the world. Mothers help children see the home as a Missal (misspelling intended) that launches children out the door to become world-consecrating saints. The church shouts out to her children at the end of every Mass: Go, be sent!

Archbishop Sheen caught this great mystery of the lay vocation with his characteristically vivid images:

The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap, at the crossroads where there were three languages written upon the Cross. Yes, they were Hebrew, Latin and Greek, but they could just as well have been English, Bantu or African. It would make no difference. He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the midst of the world and make Christ known.