Defusing the F-Bomb, part II

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Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Into motion
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion — Rachel Platten

“You can kill with a spear or a sneer,” Fr. Tom Hopko loved to say, quoting Dostoevsky. The power of words to make or break another’s world, to light a candle or curse the darkness, to bring hope or spread despair, to edify or destroy. The world was created in the beginning by words, will be judged in the end by words.

Jesus places ultimate value on words, each of which we will be called to account for in final Judgment:

I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter. — Matt. 12:36

There are a thousand homilies in that one line.

Of all the posts I have written, the one that received the most ‘hits’ (over 12,000) was my post, “Defusing the F-bomb,” which was a Christian critique of our vulgarity-saturated culture. I referred in that post to my own relationship to cussing. But I’d like to finish that story.

I grew up surrounded by vulgarity, and by the time I got to High School I had developed a sewer mouth that even made my ‘regular guy’ friends uncomfortable at times. When I experienced my faith conversion in February of 1987, I immediately knew, though I could not explain exactly why, that I had to stop swearing. Among my college friends and acquaintances, it was the most dramatic signal that I had changed. A change that frequently called down from them on me the best insult I felt I’d ever received, “Jesus freak.”

Over the years, I know many people think I am extreme on my no-cussing rule. This is why.

Over the next 25 years, I successfully held closed the flood gates of audible profanity that silently filled my mind day and night. For me this was a miracle of actual and prevenient grace. I had long before accepted that this constant mental effusion of foul language would be a permanent penance the rest of my life. I had begged God to take it away, but it would not be so. Though, as I said, I had reconciled myself with it, as much as one can.

Then I met an elderly priest who had been an exorcist for several decades. We met one afternoon to chat about something unrelated to exorcism or my own personal life. We had never met before, and he knew nothing about me. At the end of our very wonderful conversation, he said, “Do you mind if I pray for you?” I said enthusiastically, “No! Please do!” He took out his crucifix and placed it on my head, and prayed, “O Lord, your servant Tom has suffered under the burden of blasphemy for years and has been faithful in the fight. I ask you now to free him from the spirit of blasphemy, so he can carry out his mission to make known your Word to your people without hindrance.”

I was stunned, stupefied, speechless. How did he know? I had told him nothing of myself. At once, with absolute certitude, as soon as he finished his prayer I knew I had been freed from the inner storm of profanity. There was a total calm in my mind. This day, one month shy of 6 years later, I remain 100% free. Though I can call to mind curse words, they no longer present themselves with force. At all. My gratitude has never ever for a second ebbed.

Before I left, I said to him, “I have struggled for 25 years with overcoming profanity. I am astonished. I can hardly take it in. I don’t know what to say besides, thank you. And thanks be to God.” He said, “Tom, God freed you today. But He waited 25 years so this moment of victory would be yours and His. You had to suffer the war with Him to receive the palm of victory. No freebies in the Kingdom. He wants us to have a stake in salvation, to share in the battle. And remember, your healing was for others, more than it was for you. Remember that, okay? Now use your words well and bless this cursing world! Okay?”

“Okay.” Let me strike the match, O Lord.

Off balance

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[from a May 19 journal entry]

I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it. ― Lucy Kalanithi, speaking of her deceased husband

The occasional notes, various expressions of sympathy still trickle in. Forty days since my dad died. It’s just beautiful, humbling, the individual and sincere acts of care and concern. I am still catching up on the thank you notes.

I have watched and walked with others to their death over the years, but never a parent. So grateful my mom at 91 is still going strong. Every day counts in a new way now, even as my mother says these days with unsettling frequency, “I told God, I’m ready to go any time you are.” I once replied, “I told God, I’m not ready for her to go anytime soon.” We laughed.

Death is a thin place, a confrontation with towering finality, much feared in an age that flees all absolutes that lay final claim on our freedom. My dad was emaciated his last days, thin unto the fusion of skin and bone. As I lay next to him in his bed, it seemed I straddled vying worlds. I felt the dark power of what St. Paul called the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) and finally felt in my gut the force of the metaphor in Song of Songs 8:6,

for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.

Love and death, hallowed bedfellows. In Christ.

The vitality in his pale blue eyes never dimmed, nor did his humor. Several times a twinkle in his eyes, hovering above a faintly visible smile, revealed to me his grasp of an ironic moment; and his recognition that I knew exactly what he found funny in the moment.

We had been somewhat distant over the years [I will be sparing on details but] the reasons that once persuasively argued in favor of distance now crumbled beneath the weight of death’s lengthening shadow.

Memento mori, “remember death” echoed like an antiphon in my mind. How brief is my life, our life, and what is it’s purpose but to be merciful while we can; to be reconciled?

Man, his days are like grass;
he flowers like the flower of the field.
The wind blows, and it is no more,
and its place never sees it again.
But the mercy of the Lord is everlasting. — Psalm 103:15-16

Mercy alone is undying. Only what resembles mercy will withstand our passage through the divine Fire (cf 1 Cor. 3:15).

Just yesterday I planned, for a fortnight of seconds, my Father’s Day call to him, forgetting … before, suddenly, I remembered death, interrupted from this dysphoric state of mind by my son — “Dad!” — asking me if he could borrow my t-shirt.

“Where am I?”

I felt knocked off balance. Dad, Dad.

My Dad gave me many t-shirts. More than I could number, some of them I still wear. I am wearing one now.

“Of course, which one?”

May I always clothe my children, all the naked who ask.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. — Col. 3:12-14

Grant him, O Lord, eternal rest. Be merciful to me, a sinner. Amen.

God of Limits

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

The other day, I drove a friend to someone’s birthday party. As we drove she shared with me very candidly some of her life challenges and hardships. What struck me most as she spoke was the way she seamlessly combined raw honesty in naming just how difficult her life limits and crosses are, all the while claiming the choice to love faithfully through it all. With side-splitting humor. In fact, our whole conversation seemed to be a lengthy psalm twining praise and anguish, complaint and trust, love and frustration.

I had a hard time falling asleep that night, I was so moved by the beauty of her character. Of her meekness, and hope.

I studied under moral theologian Germain Grisez back in the early 1990’s. I remember when we were discussing the virtue of humility, he went on a riff about the importance of meekness, the third Beatitude. He said, “meekness is recognizing, accepting and carrying out one’s limited role in the Body of Christ.” Our ensuing discussion centered around the word “limited,” and he mentioned how difficult it is for people of faith to accept the limits life, and so God’s providence, places on them. According to my journal notes of reflection on his words, his ideas were along these lines,

The question is never ‘what do I do if there are limits in my life,’ but ‘what can I do within the limits of my life.’ We are always cut short, interrupted, set off course, set back, put upon, let down, disappointed. Faith never promises us life ‘going my way.’ But faith does promise us our limits can becomes frames for magnificent works of art. In fact, God’s providence seems to make a preferential option for constricted spaces to open out into His greater vistas. As per the Beatitudes, these vistas of God-art always look toward the new creation. An eschatological aesthetics.

Israel enslaved in narrow Egypt, being led by a reluctant and stuttering Moses in a harrowing exodus out of slavery into new lands of desert freedom: this becomes the dominant biblical paradigm of all covenant life; life bound by unbreakable promises kept in a broken word.

No narrow Egypt, no liberating exodus. No liberating exodus, no broad Promised Land. No obstinate Pharaoh, no Passover. No stuttering Moses, no divine Word. And in Jesus, this whole pattern of divine providence gets recapitulated and perfected. No Passion, no Resurrection.

Felix culpa! Happy fault!

In all of this, the Jews will tell us, it is God’s eternal *hesed*, His “enduring and faithful covenant love” that makes the world turn thus. Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The Cross is steady while the world whirls.”

Love always starts in homely seed form, then grows majestic.

St. Thérèse gave us the golden key when she counseled us to remain content with our own unique hemmed in circumstances, doing small, insignificant and hidden acts of great love under the gaze of a secretly eyeing Father. However limited our circumstances are, we can aspire to love without limit. Aspire higher.

In fact, the more limited our situation, the greater the love can be. Like the world-flipping Beatitudes, Christians take special joy in the most (seemingly) inhospitable circumstances that afford God the opportunity to be hospitable in and through us; to love big in tight spots.

When we come before God in the final Judgment, He will only ask how well we tended the exceedingly tiny plot of land He entrusted to us, to see what flowers, fruits and medicinal leaves we grew … for others. Heaven will be made of such produce that was freely given away.

My daughter Catherine, when she was four or five years old, came running up to me one day as I got out of my car after a long and exhausting day. She had been playing in the front yard when I pulled up, bent over something close to the ground. As she ran toward me, I did not have the energy to show interest in what she was doing. But she insisted. As I kept walking, she said, “Daddy, look! A stick! A stick!” I said, “Oh yes,” and kept walking. She followed me and pulled on my pants, “Daddy, no! Look! The stick!”

I stopped to glance at the stick, and she said, “Look! Look!” I looked closely, and saw lots of little red spider mites running in and out of the cracks in the stick. We dropped to the ground together, lost in her tiny world of enormous wonder. And our love.

I forgot I’d had a bad day. Eschatological aesthetics.

Something wild, something dangerous, something that makes us feel alive

Rainbow yesterday afternoon, after a brief sunshower

Deep down, we know our souls need something wild, something dangerous, something that makes us feel alive. The sea does that. It’s the last untamed place on earth. — Peter Kreeft

My wife, kids and I have vacated New Orleans for a few days to a quiet beach spot along the Gulf of Mexico. One of our favorite places to be on God’s green earth. The sights and sounds, the smells and tastes. Family.

We spent our first afternoon and evening doing things we don’t often have time or opportunity to do. My oldest son Michael and his girlfriend went shell hunting along the beach, and happened on a colony of hermit crabs. I played late night Marco Polo and Monkey in the Middle in the pool with Catherine and Maria. Patti and I sang a duet of Philip Phillips’ Home while Catherine did her signature beatboxing. Lots of laughing, more singing, and tomorrow the cigars come out. Nicholas will come later in the week.

Michael’s girlfriend, who is from Iowa, said, “It’s like returning to childhood. So simple.”

My favorite moments, though, were when we sat outside on the south facing balcony near midnight and watched an active distant thunderstorm silently light up the sky over the Gulf with its intricately webbed, upward-reaching flashes of fire. Every five to ten seconds. Amazing how our voices lowered into hushed tones as we spoke about its haunting beauty, a seemingly unspoken and innate act of reverence.

Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice
and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose,
and his lightning to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars;
he thunders with his majestic voice
and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend. – Job 37:2-5

I love the seagulls and sandpipers that surround me now as I write. Oh, and the pelican that just soared past me, motionless wings only inches above the water. Deft.

I just recalled a wonderful story about St. John of the Cross that I came across in my dissertation research. The very first time he ever saw the ocean, on a trip to Portugal, he was invited by his brother friars to visit a ‘mystic’ who, it was said, bore Christ’s wounds in her body. John, as per his custom, was not much interested in such things. He chose, instead, to spend the whole day on the shore overlooking the Atlantic. The friar accompanying him said he remained silent the whole day.

I would most certainly have joined him.

It’s so easy to pray here. I spent much of my childhood around the Atlantic, mostly around Narragansett Bay. My soul was big in those days, capacious and spacious, able to receive the sacrament of creation with senses wide-open. May I open wider yet again. If I do, I promise to share anything that seems of worth here with you.

From Home.

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.” — St. Maximus the Confessor

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. in their hospice, one of the AIDS patients we served once said to one of the Sisters, “Where do you people come from?”

She had been overwhelmed by the new “economy” she experienced at Gift of Peace, which, in her words, “spit in the face of the law of the street — ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.” She said, “All my life, anytime anyone did anything nice for me, they always wanted something back. You didn’t give unless you wanted to take. This is the first place I’ve been where they do something nice, but don’t want something back.”

She was especially amazed that the Sisters and volunteers were able to ignore her initial expressions of bitter ingratitude and anger, and continue to care for her with kindness and patience.

After I heard her observation, I meditated on just how radical the implications of what she said were if that “economy” was lived out in every detail of Christian life. What a strange form of justice would emerge! To this effect, Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-36 are indeed mind-bending:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It seems, then, that Jesus touts mercy as the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mercy, which is love encountering evil, brokenness, sin, death, and overcoming it.

Where might we even start implementing such an impossible demand? Well, by actively letting go of the need to be thanked, acknowledged or praised for the good we do. By working on refining our intention — the why of your action — from “what’s in it for me, on my terms” to “what is for God’s greater glory,” while trusting in the supremacy of God’s manner, in the End, of rewarding good and dealing with evil.

Sounds lofty and glorious in speech, but translating it into everyday actions is an entirely different experience. Brutally hard, as the present economy is infected by the logic of sin.

In service to purifying their intention, St. John of the Cross counseled his fellow Religious to frequently seek out opportunities to do kindnesses to those notorious for ingratitude. Why? Yes, to help purify their intention, shifting the center of gravity from the needy ego to the God-neighbor.

But also it was to imitate God in offering the unworthy and ungrateful an opportunity to discover in us a new way of being human, pattered after God’s economy of salvation. In other words, by imitating God in this way, we offer others the invitation to be saved.

By looking at us, they can say: “Oh, that’s why I would want to be saved! To be like him, like her!”

Or, even better, maybe I could say that by choosing to do good to those who cannot, or will not do good to us in return, we allow ourselves to be saved by the merciful Father.

And being saved means being made capable of loving as God loves, with God’s love, plain and simple.

While we will always find reasonable reasons for not acting in such a way to this or that nasty, ungrateful person, faith challenges us to risk each day a new way of seeing the world, a new way of acting toward others that makes mercy the new normal. The cognitive dissonance this risk  causes should remind us that mercy is indeed as odd a form of justice as a crucified God is an odd manner of wielding divine omnipotence.

The woman at Gift of Peace ended up being baptized. Why? She said, “if your Jesus is anything like these women, I want to know Him.”

Yeah, that.

A Sacrament of sex

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[originally posted in 2016]

Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. – Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia

I’d like to share today a song by the group, Penny and Sparrow. The song, Duet, is sung by lead singer Andy Baxter and a guest artist named Hannah Huston. Our friend, Austin Ashcraft, introduced it to Patti and me last winter and we both loved it.

The song brings into close proximity sexual intimacy and the daily “labor of love” in marital and family. The song brilliantly reveals how these two seemingly contrasting aspects of marriage actually intensify one another. I’ll share below what I wrote later that night in my journal after he shared the song with us.

+++

I believe the most creative tension in marriage is found between erotic-possessive love (I want you) and self-sacrificing love (I am for you). Marriage is a dance between desire and choice, possessing and giving, taking in and pouring out, eros and agape. I burn with passion for my wife and I am beckoned by love to daily die for her.

Two flames, one love.

Erotic sex was created by God to be the servant of marital fidelity, the welding fire that solidifies our lifelong bond. Every sexual act is a marital act, a consummating sign and seal of everything, all-for-you, forever. Which is why every sexual act apart from marriage is a lie, an act of theft, as you give to and take from another the totality you have not yet pledged.

When I married Patti, after God there is no love in all of creation that lays claim on me as does my covenant promise to love her — “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). She is the treasure buried by God in the field of Tallahassee, for which I sold all my possessions to obtain. Beginning with the divine command to “abandon mother and father” and cling to Patti (Gen. 2:24), all other loves in this life, including love for our children, are to be ordered in service to our marital bond.

As more years pass, I can see the deepening significance of sexual intimacy as a sacrament of our God-entwined “everything, all-for-you, forever.” In the context of an enduring covenant, sex is meant to be a graced sign of mutual trust, vulnerability, surrender, gift, unity, an exchange of hearts. “The two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). “Will become” is key, as it’s a progressive journey of one-ing, one had through battles and struggles, embraces and reconciliations, labor and rest, joys and sorrows.

Inscribed by our now 30-year history of friendship, each sexual act entails a love story, enfleshes a mutual knowledge that can never be adequately captured by words. Only by words-made-flesh, as we come to finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s needs, read each other’s faces, forgive each other’s sins before they are committed. My wife knows me more than any other human being — a terror and thrill all at once!

“Adam knew Eve, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). How much more that means now.

Lastly, if this inextricable link between sex and the real day-to-day struggles of covenant love is true, it also means any fantasy that marital sex will be consistently amazing, easy and ecstatic all the time, on demand, must be abandoned. The real sex, grounded in real life and love, is the sex that not only satisfies, but also sanctifies. Is the sex that is sacramental, to the very end.

Duet:

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen ’em carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you