“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

In all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. In all the world, there is no love for you like mine. – Maya Angelou

I was preparing this last week for a talk I gave yesterday on seeking holiness in marriage and family life. Though I was not happy with the talk I gave, the preparation stirred in me so many new insights and reminded me of the immense gift I have in my wife and our children. For that I am so grateful.

Though I did not use this in the talk, I hand wrote these thoughts on the backside of my introduction:

Marriage is absurd. So radical, so extreme, so hard to write about. I think of Jane Austin, in Emma, writing, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” Its truth progressively defines my existence in ways only added-years can reveal. Marriage lays claim to me with a totality nearest the totality of God. So terrifyingly near, marital love is a divine Sacrament, upwelling from the Heart of Christ-fire, barely veiling God’s Face. My vocation is to become in reality what we have promised.

To my wife I’ve pledged, made oath, promised a covenant love equivalent to that due God alone: she lays claim to all my heart, soul, mind, strength, spirit, flesh. To her I have offered my body as a living sacrifice. My life is, at core, a journey into union with her. All else after God is secondary to our path to oneness. To become so perfectly one that we can say in truth, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song 2:16). Hers is my interior life, and mine is hers. Our Sacrament binds my sharing in grace to her, and her sharing in grace to me (1 Cor. 7:14). To her I have vowed poverty, as all is held in common. All other loves in my life, after God, must accede to orbit our love.

As [my grandfather] wrote me, “In our union, there is no ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘my,’ ‘mine.’ Only ‘us,’ ‘ours.’ I don’t know where [your grandmother] begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. And for over 69 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2.”

My life is driven, ignited, inspired, illumined, ravaged, judged each moment by that call.

To see this and believe, I must sell my cleverness and purchase bewilderment…

Holy (Unchosen) Family

[This will actually begin a break as I will be away from internet for five days!]

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. — Harper Lee

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of His rescue plan for the human race.

The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or like those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work or what our religion, race or ethnicity is. Or even what parish family we happen to belong to.

George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations, that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.

Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into — relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference — that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are ‘stuck to’ that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “you shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur — one “near by” — love encounters its highest calling.

Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.

The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the Kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.

G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The word “religion,” from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a People — many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.

This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the Cross by His neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as He obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.

I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather we fiercely believe, as a rule (§518), that the parish we belong to — are “bound fast to” — is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our land-locked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-by’s with whom God’s scheming Providence ✟ has arranged for us to learn love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.

May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-by’s, beginning with those nearest us at home.

Just the way you are

There is a possessiveness in the idealist’s attitude. “You are to be like me. I will shape you, or hammer you, into the shape of my ideal. You must enjoy my pleasures. Your tastes must coincide with mine. You must have only my values. You must be restricted by my limitations.” ― Caryll Houselander

During our marriage preparation, Bishop John Smith, who celebrated our wedding, had lunch one day with us at my wife’s apartment. He asked us dozens of questions about our backgrounds, our relationship, our struggles and joys, and above all asked about our dreams for a future life together. It was a beautiful experience. I wrote this in my journal that night:

…After we had shared with him our dreams, he said: “Don’t let go of those! Don’t forget those! They’re precious. Every wedding anniversary, revisit them. Those are God’s dreams for you, planted in your hearts. Too many couples lose these and grow stale”…

…He put his hands on our shoulders, and said, “And always realize, Patricia [looking at Patti], and always realize, Thomas [looking at me], that the person sitting in front of you — look at each other — is the real person you are marrying. Not the man you wish Thomas would be, or the woman you want Patricia to be.”

“Your sacrament will be a real presence, as God deals in the real. Can you accept the other’s whole package as you see it?” We laughed awkwardly and said, yes. Then he said, “Good! The day of your wedding, you will say ‘I promise’ to the real person each of you will become every tomorrow after that. That’s the biggest promise any man can ever make. It’s the one God made to us on the Cross.”

Years later, when I read Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words, I remembered Bishop Smith with gratitude.

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life”. We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness but where God is not present.

As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?

The Truth will drop your facade

The truth has not so much set us free as it has ripped away a carefully constructed facade, leaving us naked to begin again.
― Lisa Unger

This time of year, amid the festive lights and joyful songs and celebrations, some of the darkest parts of ourselves, and especially of our families, can surface and sully what should be a merry season. Estrangements become vivid, loneliness cuts deep, loss opens its dark doors; the feeling of being forgotten, left behind or overwhelmed suffocates. Or maybe we are consumed by that deep nagging sense of being a failure as Christmas letters pour in, detailing what seem to be wonderful and successful lives.

Yuck!

But isn’t this the point of the season? Aren’t we “the people who dwell in darkness” who see a great light? Yes! The Savior, not the Cheerleader reigns. To do what? To save a wretch like we! Which is why we jubilantly sing on Christmas,

He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found…

He comes to speak blessings into our curse-drenched world, to enter our darkness with His great light, to descend into the realm of death with His life, to bound into a land of gloom carrying His hope, to walk into our lonely lives with His loving Presence.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn, as Christ comes — the Rising Sun — to draw out our darkness from its hidden place, and conquer.

The source of Christmas cheer is not that all is well and God’s arrival is the icing on the cake. No! All is not well, and God has come to His people to set them free. We are imprisoned, all of us. That’s the point.

The key? To use Advent as a season to stop and drop the facades. Then let the River of Life roll over us. Give Christ leave to descend into your sundry hells, and ask Him — no, beg Him! — to dawn in you the light of hope. Stop trying to kill your pain, and leave room for His love to reign … in the silence.

Only then you will be ready to spread good cheer.

We once got a Christmas letter from a family who detailed all of the unpleasant dysfunctions and failures, along with the successes, of their year. Though it was done in a spirit of good humor, it was absolutely refreshing. Yes, there was a real family, a family ready for the birth of the naked, crying, hungry Truth who sets us free. To be real, and joyous.

If we so choose.

So get real before the Real, and then have a Merry Christmas.

A Hidden Life

Again, I would like to strongly encourage you to see the movie about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter that comes out in theaters this weekend and next weekend. It is very intense, but very powerful.

My wife and I saw it at a film festival already, but I will refrain from commenting on specifics to avoid any spoilers. But I will say that, if I could choose a tagline for the movie, it would be that of St. John Paul II: “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.”

“I hope to lose, my child.”

In his book, Domestic Monastery, Ronald Rolheiser recounts this story:

As a young man, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, once sought spiritual guidance from an old monk named Father Makarios. In his autobiography, he describes a conversation he had with the old monk:

“Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios?” I asked him. “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. … I wrestle with God.” “With God!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “And you hope to win?” “I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist.”

That took my breath away.

Reading this a few weeks ago reminded me of a remarkable (and convicting) conversation I had with an older retired priest I met when I was volunteering at a nursing home in Hartford, Connecticut back in the late 1980’s. He was at the time retired from parish administration, but not from active ministry. He had chosen to dedicate his energies to ministering in various nursing homes, which he called “wastelands of despair.”

He shared with me that his twofold goal was (1) to search out the families of nursing home residents and convince them of the greatness and gravity of the Fourth Commandment and (2) to help these senior men and women find Christ’s power alive in their present weakness and loneliness, as well as in their past regrets. He said (according to my journal),

A society obsessed with youth, personal freedom and productivity casts the elderly aside at its own peril. Not only is a treasury of wisdom lost, and a debt of gratitude left unpaid, but elderly who are abandoned despair at a time of life when hope should shine brightest. Old age is when spiritual maturing should lead to breakthroughs, like forgiving, trusting God or letting go of past fears, hurts and regrets.

But without a family or friends to join that struggle at the end, those breakthroughs can’t happen, and what should have become an opportunity for reconciling, or a softening one’s hard edges, or an opportunity a final surrender to God becomes despair. And that’s not only for the elderly, but for the young whom God has called to join the old in what they used to call the “final agony” at the end of life. Sanctifying for all.

I think that one of the many reasons egoism is exploding in our culture is because it’s more and more unfettered by those who once held the ego at bay … As we insulate the old from the young, the elderly no longer hold a claim on young egos, just as the tens of millions of babies being aborted in the womb no longer hold that same claim on their parents.

…I tell all youth ministers again and again: reconnect your youth with their elders! It will save them all…

Marriage: To Have and to Hold

[these are notes I wrote for a theology class I taught recently–excuse their ‘note-flavor’!]

Today you are young and very much in love and you think that your love can sustain your marriage. It can’t. But your marriage can sustain your love. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to a young couple

In the Judeo-Christian vision, marriage is an irrevocable covenant bond that a man and woman freely enter into through solemn and binding promises, by which they receive marriage as both a life-giving gift and a grave responsibility. This bond makes them “one flesh,” creating a protected sanctuary within which stability and trust, love and life can flourish, and in which a family can safely grow like a Garden protected from innumerable predators by its grace-drenched hedges.

The marital bond, whether natural or sacramental, is a “theological” reality, meaning its inner logic is indelibly inscribed by God’s own irrevocable promise to “one” Himself with creation in a faithful and life-giving bond of eternal covenant love. In other words, what a man and woman become when they receive marriage by means of solemn promises is the reality of the unbreakable divine-human covenant bond that God Himself has joined. Marriage as a gift seals, structures, illumines and forges the couple’s natural love into a permanent bond that, strictly speaking, belongs to God.

This is what Jesus means when He says, “What God has joined, man must not divide” (Matt. 19:6).

When a couple in love choose and enter marriage, they accept to become a permanent sign of a reality that transcends their subjectivity. As a sign, they henceforth exist for one purpose: to manifest and mediate what they signify, i.e. the free, total, faithful and fruitful love of God. To break the covenant of marriage is to shatter the sign, to smash the image.

The bond of marriage is no abstraction, not reducible to a lifeless law, social convention or inhuman burden. Rather, it is a gift, designed in the Heart of God, entrusted into the entwined hands of a couple. And this bond they receive is fully alive and teeming with vitality, passion, fire, light, sacrifice, long-suffering love, tender kindness, selfless giving, and every other attribute of God-for-us. This bond is liberating and transforming, demanding and compelling, volatile and peaceful, allowing the infinite dynamism of the divine image we bear to unfold into a likeness of divine love.

Any spirituality of marriage is simply a way of surrendering to the exigencies of God’s covenant love, which is the meaning and final purpose of all existence:

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” (1 Cor 13:4-7).

On a marriage retreat I led years ago, I used an image that came to me in prayer. I said,

Think of your love as a couple as two hands joined, with one from each of you crossed over the other — as one would hold them to receive Holy Communion. Now think of the covenant of marriage as a Consecrated Host, the Sacrament of Christ placed on your joined hands. With what care you would hold that Gift, ensuring your every step and move were in harmony to secure this Gift.

Your calling, once you both have consented to co-receive this Holy Communion, is to walk through life with your hands firmly joined, like Christophers tasked with carrying Christ across a raging river safely to the Other Side. Never allow your hands to separate, and beg Him whom you carry to hold you together in unity!

But remember, your Christ-carrying hands form a cross, and so know people and events, forces and tempters, burdens and trials, demons and distractions will do all they can to rip your hands apart, to introduce dissonance and divorce your crossed hands.

In the end, when death comes, together you must lift your hands on High and offer back to God the other whom He gave you and the Gift He gave you both to hold.

This song my wife sang at our wedding is a nuptial prayer that captures this mystery well: