“Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15)

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Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. — Second Vatican Council

Every married couple is called to transforming union with God as a couple.

The heart of the bond of marriage teems with divine fire, as it is “what God has joined” (Matt. 19:6). From the moment the couple’s free consent is exchanged in the marital promises, God’s immediate act of joining unrelentingly commences as a sustained, constant, permanent, dynamically erupting in each new moment of married life, until death dissolves the nuptial bond.

Between husband and wife, God acts as a centripetal force, as His unity is now theirs. The three-in-one infinite dynamism of God, the two-in-one infinite dynamism of Christ’s human and divine natures, and the two-in-one dynamism of Christ’s covenant bond with the Church are sacramentally unleashed all at once in the married couple. The rest of their lives are spent recovering from the impact of these three mysteries that are called to embody as two-in-one flesh.

St. John Paul II remarkably described Christian marriage’s dynamism as “itself a liturgical action glorifying God in Jesus Christ and in the Church.” Mind blowing! My wife and I at every moment are invited to be con-celebrants of a ceaseless nuptial “liturgy” — liturgy here being defined as the full activation of the three mysteries in service to redeeming the cosmos.

In us, Patti and Tom, God longs, loves, desires to be given full freedom to do His work of joining, of stitching together, of reconciling, of uniting heaven and earth in, with and through us. Every tiny act of love-saturated synergy between us unleashes on creation the full power of the crucified Bridegroom of humanity.

Supine.

Our bond exists to permit God to sweep all things up into the eternal wedding feast of the slain Lamb and so heal a fractured world.

In light of that, Cardinal Arinze said to me in 2010 after I asked him how I could be more effective at my ministry as a teacher in the Church, “You want to save the world? Love your wife. Love your children. Everything else is a distraction.”

The married couple’s mysticism is always a nuptial mysticism. Husband and wife, precisely as oned, are “caught up” into the triple white-hot core of Mystery: the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union and the Christ-Church covenant bond. Their journey to God is now no longer possible solely as individuals, but only as a couple. To seek escape from that is to seek union with God apart from the covenant demands of love. Their journey to union with God can no longer be thought of, acted on, sought apart from their spouse. Even if the spouse of a believer has no faith, the vocation remains exactly the same, or better, is intensified in its cruciform redemptive character:

For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. — 1 Cor. 7:14

My primary Way to God is my wife. Period. No other aspect of my life, work, relationships, religious activities rivals or surpasses her in importance. If I am saved, I am saved primarily by how I love God in relation to my wife, and how I love my wife in relation to God. If am saved by how I love my children, it is only in relation to how in parenting I have loved my wife. Love for my parents, friends, co-workers are saving only in right-relation to my wife. God’s joining makes Patti, at every moment, my vocational axis, my magnetic pole.

Apt it is that St. Paul (Eph. 5:21-33) chose to describe this radical vocation vision of marriage in terms of the love manifest on Golgotha. Nowhere is the work of repairing a shattered world said to be easy or breezy. East of Eden, the way home is narrow, messy and hard.

There is a man who lives not far from our home, whose wife is completely disabled, bedridden. He has dedicated his life to full-time caring for her. It’s just stunning, as all such things are. Once when I saw him in a local supermarket, we chatted about various things. Then I asked him how his wife was. After filling me in on a few details, he said, with the starkest sincerity, “She’s my life. It’s why wife and life rhyme, I think.” He chuckled.

I whispered under my breath, “Even a measure of that for me, Lord, please.”

His life, her life, their life, divine life. One life. One love. Forever and ever. Amen.

Slight un-pause

Okay, so this is not really a post, so it simply does not count as an interruption of my pause…

But yesterday was my daughter Catherine’s Mount Carmel Academy “Spirit Day” that I have, every year since 2014, posted on NealObstat. Because that’s just how I roll.

In the midst of the intensity of these last weeks, incessantly beset by weighty issues, my mother and my daughter injected fresh doses of wonder into my soul.

On Sunday, after spending the whole day with us, my 91 year old mother said to me, “Every day I spend with your family is the best day of my life.”

Okay, really? My heart literally hurt. Yes, that’s the meaning of life. All else is an illusion.

On Monday, Catherine was prepping for Spirit Day by having a sleepover with her friends so together they could practice the cheers and choreography.

As I drove her across town to her friend’s house, she shared with me her wild excitement over this event. How special it was to her and her friends. And she described all of these small details surrounding the day like they were matters of the greatest importance. Because they were.

Okay, really? My heart literally hurt. Yes, that’s the meaning of life. All else is illusion.

Thank you God for a 16 year old and a 91 year old, both of whom led me deep into your Heart, which I bet literally hurts, too.

Marriage and the Subordinate Clause

Today the (in)famous Ephesians reading finds its way into Mass, with its household “subordinate clauses,” which address husbands and wives in chapter 5, and children-parents and slaves-masters in chapter 6. St. Paul (or his disciple) offers, in these two chapters, a vision for the difference Christ makes in the organization of a traditional Greco-Roman household.

What is so often noted are the Greco-Roman elements that grind on our modern sensibilities,

“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” … “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

What can easily be missed in this are the stunningly subversive Christ-twists added in by Paul. These seemingly subtle insertions radically reconfigure the way this traditional household order is to be understood. To a non-Christian Roman citizen, these lines would have been jarring,

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” … “Masters, act in the same way toward [your slaves], and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven and that with him there is no partiality.”

We might say, in short, that these Ephesians passages insert a radical mutuality between woman-man and master-slave that is not present in Greco-Roman society. This is what is meant by the introductory Ephesians 5:21 passage, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In the ancient world, these relationships were substantially unilateral ones, with the balance of power massively favoring the husband and slave owner.

What Paul argues here is that, when the agapē-love revealed in Christ crucified enters into human institutions, as when it enters baptismal water or eucharistic bread-wine, it utterly transforms them into something new.

Like a doting grandmother that loads her grandchildren up with hyperglycemic sweets and then leaves it to the parents to endure the volatile consequences, St. Paul loaded the Ephesian Christians up with these volatile hyper-agapē commands and then left it to the later Church to decipher and harness the consequences.

St. John Chrysostom attempted this in his homilies on Ephesians 5,

There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, the source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience.

What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of the husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he live with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

It is difficult for us to appreciate just how unheard of this way of thinking was in 4th century Roman society — which we are constantly reminded of when we read St. John and are amazed at how many times he has to warn husbands to stop abusing their wives.

My favorite line in today’s reading, though, is 5:28,

He who loves his wife loves himself.

This is a twist on the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which makes clear that the commandment means not that self-love is the model for love of neighbor but that your neighbor is your self. “Another self,” you might say, meaning that what you do/don’t do for them you do/don’t do for yourself.  To murder is to commit suicide. Their good is your good, and their suffering is your suffering. And, contra Cain, you are your neighbor’s keeper.

In this sense, marriage is the most extreme form of neighbor love as the two become “one flesh,” i.e. the absolute renunciation of all “private property” before the spouse. And so we have in Song of Songs 6:3, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Which is why Paul says (!) in 1 Cor. 7:4,

For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

Marriage is meant to be a singular prophetic sign that models in extremis, “in the extreme,” for all humanity, and for the church (Acts 4:32!), the way love of neighbor works. Marriage is the supreme school of love for children, for extended family, for the local community and church. Marriage is meant to be the leaven that heals a fractured humanity, that models reconciliation among those who are estranged, that witnesses to the authentic meaning of unity-in-diversity, that offers an example of long-suffering patience between very different people, and that teaches self-sacrifice in the face of suffering, tragedy and hardship.

Marital love stands at the core of God’s redemption of creation and exists for the life of the world, which is why Christ made it a grace-drenched, life-giving, mercy-full, cross-bearing Sacrament. Marriage is “not for me,” as Seth Adam Smith famously said in 2013, but is for my spouse and children, for the church and society. Marriage is love lived “on behalf of all and for all.”

May it be so for all those called to this most exalted and noble form of divine and human love. Amen.

“What is your genius?”

Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered – either by themselves or by others. – Mark Twain

“What is your genius?”

My grandfather asked me this one time when I was in junior high. Quoting Twain to me (which he loved to do), he continued, “everyone has a genius in them. A part of them that’s fitted to unlock some secret in the world for the rest of us. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule.” “So,” he pressed me, “what is it that makes you feel energized, determined, resolved?” I said, “Exploring nature.”

I remember it sounding lame to me as I said it, like it was too vague. Yet he said, “Good, then find a way to do that the rest of your life and be relentlessly single-minded.” Unquestionably, that day a seed of confidence was planted, long to lay dormant. Which is why I remember it so clearly.

He then said, “Mine was unlocking the potential in men for greatness and success. I can see the genius of others and where to put it to work.” Indeed, he went into business, becoming an exemplary leader dedicated to unlocking greatness in a company and in each person he worked alongside.

I can testify to his genius in my life.

I myself went on to study meteorology, but still retained my other “natural” childhood passions — entomology, ornithology, oceanography, cosmology and landscape design. Yet, thirty-eight years after our conversation, Pop, here I sit at my desk as a theologian.

Yet again, I am convinced his advice to me still holds true. Even if my passions were never developed by the discipline of scientific rigor, my innate fascination with the natural world has served as a primary fuel for my theological vocation. For me, the poetry of Psalm 19 dominates my vision,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech,
and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

I would also add that my fascination has retained its (for lack of a better expression) childhood character, as it remains principally a contemplative posture, an aesthetic quest driven by the surprising beauty that is the world. This vantage permits me to see around me a vast, so to speak, Burning Bush through which God, like an infinitely giddy child, gives away in fits of explosive joy all His best kept secrets.

I have always imagined the Exodus and the Resurrection of Jesus this way. a surprising explosion of joy erupting into a joyless space. Or an eternal game of hide and seek that injects into dark human tragedy, bright divine comedy.

Or so it seems to me.

May each of us place our genius in service to the appearing of God.

Thanks, Mom and Dad!


A simple post today.

Today is my birthday. I mention that not to attract good wishes (though prayers are welcome!), but to say that today is another day that reminds me of the gap left in the world after my father’s death.

Why?

Well, sometime in the 1990’s my dad said to me on my birthday, with his characteristic chuckle, “Happy birthday, son! But really, shouldn’t this day be about you thanking me and your mother for giving you a birthday, right?!”

We laughed hard. But after that, I did precisely that. I made my annual birthday celebration a day of gratitude to them for giving me life, for co-creating me with God. Especially as my mom was in her 40’s!

I have written often on gratitude, on the beauty of the “it would have been enough” mentality that acknowledges every moment we live as more than we deserve. Simply to exist is sheer gift. To exist is itself sufficient reason for unending gratitude. Asking “why something rather than nothing” supplies us with sufficient cause for gawking wonder and shapes our lives into one giant “THANK YOU!”

But, my God, to confess in addition that God has prepared an eternity of well-being for us out of sheer love?

Total mind shut-down.

My impulse early this morning to call dad with the “thank you call” was succeeded by a sense of grief. And then by a prayer. In fact, I couldn’t help but pray the prayer I’d heard countless times in his small Orthodox Church all those Sundays I attended with him…

It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee,
to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee,
and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion.
For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible,
incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same,
Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.
Thou it was who brought us from nonexistence into being,
and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again,
and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst
brought us up to heaven, and hadst endowed us
with Thy Kingdom which is to come.
For all these things we give thanks to Thee,
and to Thine only-begotten Son, and to Thy Holy Spirit,
for all things of which we know and of which we know not,
whether manifest or unseen, and we thank Thee for this Liturgy
which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands,
though there stand by Thee thousands of archangels
and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim,
six- winged, many-eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their pinions
Singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth!
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!

God, build this house with me

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I will post again this week, but wanted to post a quick reflection.

I just returned from giving a retreat to men in formation for the permanent diaconate in Alexandria, Louisiana. The men who attended are in the truest sense “salt of the earth,” men who live their faith with a sincerity and earnestness that humbles me to the dust.

One of the men took me aside during the retreat to show me pictures of a house he entirely renovated with his own hands over a two year period of time as a gift to a family member. He was so proud of his work, and I felt deeply moved that he wanted me to know that. But when he shared with me how his faith had informed the way he worked, it leveled me. Among other things, he said,

Every day, I began by asking God to rebuild this house with me. So it would be our project, together. [then he streamed tears] You know, I grew closer to God than I ever have in all my life as we worked together each day for those two years. I never got tired of the work, even if I got physically exhausted. And to know we were doing it for [a family  member], that… [he choked up].

💥

“We.” If I could have done so without being awkward, I would have fallen prostrate and kissed his feet. All of my teaching on the vocation of the laity could simply be a commentary on that five minute conversation.

“We.” I could feel the We present as we spoke.

If the seventy million lay Catholics in the U.S. lived every day that way, America would be great indeed.

What a deacon he will be.

He was giving it back

[recent journal entry]

Someone that you have deprived of everything is no longer in your power. He is once again entirely free. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I mentioned a few months ago that my father, days before he died, said to me in a low gravelly voice, “It’s all on loan, kid; it’s all on loan.” Later that same day, as he was in grinding pain and groaning, he again spoke to me in the same voice, “Terrible. Thank God.”

I don’t pretend to understand what he intended exactly by those words, but I do know for the years preceding he frequently spoke about his declining health and reduced mobility as a “freedom” and a “royal road” to humility. Once in a phone conversation he said,

Job says [Job 1:21] we come into the world naked and leave naked. I’ve always understood naked to mean being poor in spirit and unencumbered. Our life between birth and death should approximate poverty, always ready to let go of everything at any moment should it be required.

But most of us don’t take this seriously. We grasp, refuse to let go any time God tries to wrench something out of our white knuckled grip. We say, “Oh yes, God, I trust you; but not with this. Oh yes, God, all is yours, but not that.” We’d be better off being honest with Him, “This is mine, and you can’t take it back. But the rest, you can have.” In death all of it goes, so better to rehearse well in life.

After he said that, I jotted in my journal that night,

At our conception, we receive our existence and life as sheer gift. At death, we return our existence and life as free offering. These bookends frame the meaning of the betwixt and between. Life, if faith, should synthesize these two in a perfect harmony, received gift and returned offering. But (Shema) all on His terms. That’s the dividing line between good and saint, i.e. some or all.

As I laid in bed with my dad, who was curled up in a fetal position, I allowed my mind to fill with a procession of memories from my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. What a mystery, memory, as you can make present the past in a way so vivid that the man lying next to me seemed to be the mirage. I told him amid great emotion, hoping he could hear and comprehend me,

Dad, thank you for all that you did to make my life better. For spending so much of yourself on me. You’ve just about spent it all now … I remember that time I built the 12 room purple martin house in the basement, and you surprised me by hiring a contractor with a crane to mount it 25 feet in the air. And you put that crucifix on it.

I couldn’t keep on.

He was now leaving all of that behind, I thought. As was I.

No, that’s not right. He was giving it back, I could tell. 88 years of life evaporating, yet his spirit, not evaporating, offering. Again and again he asked for “mercy, Lord.” He knew it the only way to make a worthy offering.

I prayed, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…”

The royal road. May I follow.