Thank you for offering

[I had written this post a while ago, but did not feel it was complete. A friend of mine sent me this quote today. Now it’s complete, on this Feast of the Presentation]

The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.  — Pope Benedict XVI

A week after my wife experienced her first miscarriage, the pastor of our parish asked me and my wife Patti if we would be willing to bring up the gifts of bread and wine during Mass at the Offertory. As we brought the gifts up and approached him, he said very quietly to us, “Thank you for giving your child back to God,” and blessed us.

When he placed those gifts on the Altar, returning them to God, I knew they were no longer ours. They never were. Living Fire, salty tears mingled.

It was an extraordinary moment to feel so viscerally the seamless unity of human life and Divine Liturgy, of tragedy and redemption; to hear God gently inviting us to let go; to discover in the darkness of the death of your child the kindly light of hope found in a simple gesture of offering the castles and ruins of life to God for safe keeping.

It was also extraordinary to experience such tenderness in that priest, such sensitivity to suffering. While I don’t remember much about the many (excellent) homilies he gave over the years we knew him, I will always remember those words.

As he prayed the preface to the Eucharistic prayer and came to the words, “Lift up your hearts!” — I thought, yes, I have lifted my heart up to the Lord. Our child. “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you” (Philemon 12).

May you, our child, rest with the Son in the love of your Father unto the endless ages of eternity. Pray we one day see your face, His Face, in love’s triumph. Amen.

God likes stories

God as an Architect, 1794 by William Blake

Why did God create mankind? Because God likes stories. — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

This past weekend I gave a retreat for adults preparing for sacramental reception into the Catholic Church. It was a great blessing and very humbling to be among such passionate seekers. The retreat ended with the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which I thought was an especially powerful crescendo. Afterwards, one of the participants in the retreat said to me something like this,

The images and stories you shared with us brought the Mass so alive for me that I wanted to shout out to everyone else around me, ‘Do you see what I see?’ Especially at the Consecration of the Host, all your words about the crazy love God has for us, and all the amazing people you told us about, seemed to flash out of the Host. It all made new sense to me. It was so cool. I actually wish Father Ray could have just stopped and held the Host up for a really long time so we could take it all in. It so in my face that Jesus is the center of absolutely everything Catholics are about.

I sat in a coffee shop the next day and prayerfully thought about her words, and her sincerity. How incredibly important storytelling is for internalizing the faith, precisely because it translates abstract ideas into the concrete and narrative shape of human life. Stories put skin and bones on the truths of faith, wrap them in imagination and embed themselves deeply in our memories. Life is lived not in the form of precepts, bullet points or concepts, but in the form of a constantly unfolding story. Once God spoke creation into existence in the beginning, a never-ending story was born; and He remains the primary Storyteller. It’s His pedagogy, and I have tried mightily to imitate it in my own.

I also thought, the Incarnation is the premier sign of God’s irrepressible penchant for storytelling, and of His desire to elicit our gifts in co-scripting history’s epic drama. Jesus, God and Man, is the story of God; exegete of the Father (John 1:18 uses the Greek verb exēgēsato). It makes so much sense that Jesus, Word-made-flesh, was a master storyteller who wove eternity into the fabric of time through His metaphors, analogies, parables. And even more by His very short life, His death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, and His glorious coming at the end of history. Jesus of Nazareth is the defining narrative by which the entire history of the cosmos is to be rightly understood, the final word on man’s dark story of sin and death. Jesus is the theo-drama, i.e. the story of God in search of man.

Then I thought — with copious awe — this Story has at its heart the crucifixion of God-with-us which, well, says volumes about what we are to expect as creation follows Him toward the re-creating resurrection. Per crucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light.” The new creation passes by way of an economy of repentant humility and surrendering trust in the Father’s will to deliver us from every evil by drawing from evil definitive, imperishable good stored up for us in heaven.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Even more, beginning with Baptism, and then in all of the Church’s Sacraments (which you might say are the mystical narration of this theo-drama), we who believe in this Story plunge headlong into the Spirit of the dying and rising God, who cries out within us, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15) — “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20). Think of the Mass this way, with the Words of Institution in the Mystical Supper pulsing at its heart, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it…Take this, all of you, and drink from it it.”

In the Mass, that paschal narrative transubstantiates the whole world into food and drink, because our God is a God who fills the hungry with good things. Which is why our judgment will be based on feeding and drinking (Matt. 25:35). Credo.

💥

My God. My simple act of trusting faith every day, my feeble “let it be,” my whispered “Amen” to this theo-drama is what all of creation waits on, is what speaks Light into the darkness again and again and again. And the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is where it all finds its perfect completion. This is the vocation of the Church in the world. May every human being come to know and believe in this majestic dignity and hope that is theirs in Christ.

After thinking on all of this, I thought of a powerful skit I have posted here before that dramatizes the whole Story from creation to redemption, watching it again with fresh eyes.

David’s Wavering Worship

thewinedarksea.com

[This will be my last post till this weekend, likely]

I wrote this poem sometime before 2008 after attending Mass with a friend who was dying of ALS. A man of deep faith. He sat in a wheelchair in front of our family, moving awkwardly and clearly was in pain. At the Consecration, I looked at the elevated Host which, from my vantage, was just over his right shoulder. The priest’s hand was wavering, so the Host moved during those seconds. Swayed with this man, it seemed, as if they were moving together. One sacrifice. Later in the Mass the priest brought him Communion, which he struggled to receive, awkwardly moving with the Host as the priest followed him until he ingested Him.

That night I wrote this poem.

+ + +

David’s Wavering Worship
Rough-hewn, splintered wood gathered
as kindle for a mighty Flame
’round which we whirl unchained wild
like royal David of dancing fame.
For me it is certain (though dimly seen)
there was a Fiery Divine-human yearning
with raging-hunger on his blistered tongue
pining, writhing to taste impossible Love
in Passover mystery, living Memory sung
singing downward from High Above
through the steaming Blood of Adonai, arising.
Wheat crushed, ground-divinity chewed
for God is Bread, immortal Love-made-Food,
bitter herbs with all sweetness endued.
Metabolized in one Body, one Flesh co-dying
expiring, a consecrating desecrated Corpse all-Holy
risen now Most High in glory, a Father’s Only Own
become our Food of freedom, us setting free
to love like Bloodied water outpoured, wastefully:
God who reigns, Beauty blessing from the cursèd Tree.

+++

And for whatever reason, that night, this song was playing in my head as I thought of him, Him together at that morning Mass.

Frittered away by detail

thelaratouch.com

[this is the post I mistakenly posted the other day before it was edited. I had been cobbling it together over a month’s time. Hope it is useful.]

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau

My New Year’s Resolution is to cut away all the fat, all the excess, all the frivolous or directionless investments of time and energy that distract me from what is essential, and from those who are essential in my life. I have a short, doable list of specifics, but that’s the general theme. And, like salvation, this resolve is not a once-saved-always-saved decision, but one that requires a daily renewal of vows.

Fulton Sheen once said that rivers are only strong and deep when they have sharp and firm borders that define their course with purpose. The Desert Fathers argue that among the greatest obstacles to progress in spiritual maturity is “dissipation,” the helter-skelter life. For the Fathers, the endless flitting from thing to thing without sustained attention, without a defined purpose that serves worthy goals, chokes off the virtues of temperance, fortitude and patient endurance. The dissipated may do many good things, but few of them well, none with consistency, and all absent of the ability to build that virtue that alone carries you from good to saint, perseverance.

Early last Fall, I was being pressed against the wall of my limits and knew I needed to reassess my commitments. I re-connected with an old friend I always go to when I want unvarnished honesty from someone who knows me too well, and who understands the challenges of balancing marriage, raising children, work and the rest of life. People like that in your life are gold.

Among other things, he encouraged me to engage in a week-long time audit. He said, “My father used to always say, if you want to know a man’s priorities, follow the check ledger and follow the clock. Where your time is, there is your treasure, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He added that in his experience people tend to be the most defensive when you question their use of time or their money spending habits, “because everyone knows by instinct both lay naked your real priorities.”

He jotted down a list for me on a napkin and asked me to see how I fared in investing my time into these 9 categories: focused time for prayer, focused time with spouse, focused time with children, exercise, eating with others, eating alone, personal leisure, work, sleep. He also required a separate spread sheet for me to examine the time (how much and when) I spent looking at any screens and the purpose of viewing.

Let’s just say, though carrying out the audit was challenging (a lot of work!), the results were eye-popping on all fronts. But the beauty of an audit is it eliminates all space for rationalizing distortions of how I in fact spend my time and allowed me to come up with a plan that addressed concrete issues. And some of the changes I have made have already yielded peace in my life and my family’s life.

We often think of peace as that “oceanic” feeling of tranquility when we feel good about life and have no angst or cares. However, St. Augustine defines peace as tranquillitas ordinis, “the tranquility of order,” and by order he means a life intentionally organized around the demands of justice and charity. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.”

Peace requires that you bring an order to your world that begins with ensuring you are being faithful to your primary life commitments in a sustained and enduring way. This requires simplicity. Simplicity does not mean a mere absence of “stuff” in your life, as much as it evidences a unity of focus, i.e. living so everything conspires toward the service of your primary commitments. This form of simplicity requires a resolve based not just on passing feelings, but on lasting virtues. Which means it takes hard work.

As my oldest son once said when he was 4 years old, repeating the proverb he mistakenly thought my wife had been saying all his life, “I know, mom, patience will hurt you.”

Only a well-ordered life allows for genuine spontaneity, opens an authentic space of freedom for the Spirit to blow where He wills — which is always in the context of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). Those who live by emotional whim, who justify disorder by referring to what God has supposedly “placed on my heart,” ignoring the presiding role of good judgment and the necessity of exercising the hard virtues, don’t experience spontaneity. Rather, they live in disorder constructed around personal preference dressed in religious garb. And it is my experience that these ’emo-gnostics,’ more often than not, cause others who rely on them to suffer far more from the effects of their canonized egoism than they do themselves. But they often don’t notice these casualties, as their priorities are built around their own immediate needs which, they believe, God always blesses.

To bring peace into the world you have to take charge of your life, assume responsibility for your use of time, consider your primary commitments, think of how your decisions affect others, act with purpose and intention, plan and assess regularly how you are doing, and establish a relationship of accountability to keep you honest and cover blind spots. This is a marvelous asceticism, a personal discipline that can grow a garden of virtues and benefit many people’s lives around you who depend on you being faithful to first things first. Our life is to be a living liturgy, and if you look at the Church’s liturgy, well, it’s really really well ordered and planned, with intention. It’s what St. Paul calls the offering of logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), which is far better than emotional worship.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship.

One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, voices well my own vivid awareness of the need to intentionally steward my time: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” May 2018 offer a new opportunity for consecrating time to God, of stewarding this most precious gift that comes to us but once and passes through our hands into eternity. May my every moment become a worthy, intentional, just and love-drenched offering. Not much time left, so let’s get to it…

O Lord, you have shown me my end,
how short is the length of my days. — Psalm 39:5

St. John the Brutal

Lord, you return gladly and lovingly to lift up the one who offends you, but I do not turn to raise and honor the one who annoys me. — St. John of the Cross

For today’s feast of St. John of the Cross, I will simply share with you my favorite passage in all of his work. Which I have framed. He wrote this as a “counsel of perfection” to men who had joined the Discalced Carmelite Order and were still novices. When I first read it as I was writing my dissertation, I was left breathless. Reading it gave me a whole new view of life, of life’s challenges, and what it means to allow the call to holiness to shape your relationship to every person in your life, especially the most challenging.

To make it my own, I have over the years bracketed the word “monastery” and replaced it with whatever challenged place I am in life, e.g. marriage, family, work, school. I have shared this before, but I hope, as it does for me, it never grows old for you.

…engrave this truth on your heart, and it is that you have not come to [monastery] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building. Thus you should understand that those who are in [the monastery] are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter [the monastery] life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering [monastic life], you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

My first spiritual director was deeply shaped by St. John’s work. When I would share with him my trials and tribulations, he would frequently say something to this effect, “Good. Now remember what John teaches us. If you want to discern God’s will, start by identifying people in your life that bother you most. Who irritates you most? Behold your God! They’re your first vocational call! I can infallibly say that these are God’s clarion call to you: ‘Love these and then you will be ready to do my will elsewhere!’ That’s the real test that you’re serious about this Jesus thing.”

Oh yeah, like “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Servant of God Dorothy Day, who also loved St. John, said something similar: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

So I blame it all on St. John.

Brutal.

Tenacity

Where there is no love, pour love in, and you will draw love out. — St. John of the Cross

A friend of mine took this picture recently during our anomalous snowfall in Louisiana. He and I agreed it should be called “tenacity,” or maybe “hope.”

It is absolutely stunning, isn’t it? It speaks a thousand words.

As ever, I immediately began to think theologically about this image. Lots of things coursed through my mind, but what sprang to mind most forcefully was a woman my wife and I knew, who is now deceased. A person who stands out, a splash of color in a wasteland of bland sameness.

She’d had a hard life filled with terrible loss and setback, yet she possessed an indomitable spirit and irrepressible hope. Her constant refrain was, “God knows what He is about.” But what stood out most, which in my experience is so rare, was her ability to not turn attention on herself in a conversation. A true Christian art form. She listened deeply and spoke with you as if she were (best way I can think to say it) getting lost in your world and interests. She was not what I would call a chipper or cheery person, but was joyful, if by Christian joy we mean the inner spirit’s confident delight in God’s promise to be with us no matter how dark things get.

A daily Mass goer, she had a raspy smoker’s voice, was a good read of character and was no-nonsense, making things happen without fanfare, much as I imagine her personal role model, Dorothy Day, to have been. She was suspected of heterodoxy by the orthodox and suspected of orthodoxy by those outside of the Church. She was an apostle of encouragement wherever she went. After being in her presence, you always felt lighter, lifted up.

Yes, in her presence it was easy to believe in God.

She reminded me so much of my grandfather’s words, “A truly great man leaves you thinking, not that he is great, but that you are.” She believed her special mission in life was to seek out people who are down and out, who feel left out, lost or discouraged, and breathe new life into them.

Pope Francis’ words in “The Joy of the Gospel” describe her well:

One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”. Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil. The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centered lack of trust.

If I had to identify her “secret” that made her so singular, I would say she lived in the surety of trust, animated by an audacious hope in the victory of Christ’s love. In her, love conquered with aggressive tenderness.

She was that tenacious, hopeful flower.

It’s important to have such greatness in your life, to shape your aspirations. Thinking of her makes me want to be what she was, what He is, what we are called to be.

I’ll end with her favorite prayer.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” — Gal. 6:2

weddbook.com

“Love is patient,
love is kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way,
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.” (1 Cor 13:4-8).

Years ago when my family and I were living in Brandon, Florida, I met a man who had undergone a faith conversion experience and had become passionately zealous about his faith. He had not practiced any faith most of his adult life, and before coming to faith his marriage was strained by his workaholic lifestyle. His wife and children did not share his conversion experience and he became increasingly angry and frustrated over their resistance to his desire to talk about his faith, to give her material to read or to bring them to church activities. It caused lots of tension at home. His wife was especially disgusted by it all, especially after he told her one day he was “praying for your salvation.” She said, “If you’re going pray for me be sure to tell God, ‘If you’re gonna turn my husband against me, I don’t want your salvation.'”

Eventually, he went to his parish priest to seek support, but the priest (who was just superb) was less than sympathetic to his frustration. The priest said something like, “The best way you can witness to your newfound faith is to become a better husband and father, not to club them over the head with it. Let them see how it makes you a better man, more patient and loving, home more often and less angry, not more angry; and not see that it makes you insufferable to live with. They see you now as worse, not better, and you can’t heap blame on them for that. Look, only one year ago that was you, but now you’ve already lost your patience with them. Back off on the religion talk and ramp up the love.”

The man told me the priest’s words were a bitter pill to swallow, “but by the grace of God, I swallowed it.”

When I first met this man, it was three or so years after this all had happened, and he said that priest’s advice likely saved his marriage since he had even been contemplating divorce so he could be free to live his faith out “radically.” He was still very passionate about his faith when I met him. His wife never became Catholic, nor did his children, but he said his marriage was stronger than it had ever been and his presence in his children’s lives was far greater than it had been before his conversion. He said, “Hopefully my faith’s made me easier to live with and given me some humility. But most of all I’ve learned to stop demanding our life be on my own terms.”

I thought of this story when I recently read the advice of a Eastern Orthodox spiritual author Hieromonk Gregorios to married couples who find themselves in different places in their life of faith. He says that a great mistake often made by a spouse who is “more fervent in the spiritual life” is to think of him/herself as superior to the less fervent or unbelieving spouse. Those driven by anger, frustration, impatience, self-righteous judgment — i.e. spiritual narcissism — to bring about change in their spouse build their house on sand and become a stumbling block to divine grace.

Gregorios, thinking out of the tradition of the Desert Fathers, says that what these spiritually immature people really miss is that genuine virtue views others as greater than oneself (Phil. 2:3). The virtuous “place  little importance on their deeds and think everyone else is far better than they are.” Any progress in authentic holiness only strengthens one’s resolve to serve, forgive and spread joy and peace. Genuine virtue intensifies one’s commitment to bear another’s weakness as one’s own (1 Cor. 9:22; Eph. 4:2). He continues,

In the same spirit, St. Isaiah writes, ‘If you are going along your way and there is a sick person with you, allow him to go ahead of you so that if he should want to take rest he is able to do so.’ This attitude of journeying together must be applied to those who wish to run with great speed in the spiritual life but who have a spouse who is unable to keep up with them.

To approach such situations spiritually, we should view ourselves as responsible for the spiritual weakness of the other person, perhaps because we have not shown ourselves to be the image of a true Christian and a real struggler; not only should the weaker one determine the speed of the couple’s common journey, but additionally the one who thinks they are stronger must believe that they are the cause of the spiritual slowness of the other.

When we move to the beat of love, we may appear to be lagging behind spiritually while in fact we are leading the way. When we live in this way within the bonds of marriage, all problems will be faced quietly, peacefully and with discernment — because we face them with love.