Alone with … Our Father

There are those who think, based on a one-sided spirituality, that prayer should be unalloyed contemplation of God, free of all distraction, as if the names and faces of others were somehow an intrusion to be avoided. Yet in reality, our prayer will be all the more pleasing to God and more effective for our growth in holiness if, through intercession, we attempt to practice the twofold commandment that Jesus left us. — Pope Francis

In May I gave a talk on Pope Francis’ latest document, Gaudete et exultate, on the call to holiness. Afterward, a woman came up and introduced herself to me. She and her husband of over 30 years had 3 adult children, two of whom were adopted out of foster care. She shared with me an insight I found very profound, and agreed to allow me to share it anonymously here. She said,

When I was younger, in my 20’s, I loved prayer that cast the whole world aside and left me and God alone together. I had gone on a retreat in college, and the priest who was leading it said, “Prayer is being alone with the Alone. Prayer is leaving the world behind and focusing on God alone.” I loved that image when I heard it and wanted to pray like that.

But once my husband and I had children it all changed. My prayer time suddenly filled with thoughts and worries over each child. All I could do was talk to God about them, I just couldn’t help myself. They just popped in uninvited! That was so hard for me. I tried techniques to focus but to no avail. I always felt my prayer had degenerated from the early days and I’d lost my focus on God.

So when you read that passage about intercessory prayer [the one above], I was like, “Pope Francis, seriously? Why couldn’t you have written that 35 years ago! It would have saved me a lot of grief and struggle.” That’s just so incredibly liberating to know that speaking to God about my children, husband, mother-in-law — whatever — is pleasing to God and brings me close to Him.

I said, “Well if it’s good enough for Jesus in heaven, who lives for ever to intercede for us before the Father [Heb. 7:25], it’s good enough for us!” Then I shared with her what an 80+ year old missionary priest once said in a homily,

My great aunt Gracie became a saint by praying endless novenas for everyone else’s intentions. I called her the Novena Mystic, because amazing things would happen for others through her prayer. She once told me, “I told God long ago, just give to whoever I tell you whichever graces you were going to give to me.”

That “holy bossiness” reminds me of the parable Jesus tells about the hard-nosed widow demanding action from the unjust judge [Luke 18:1-8].

If she’s not the definition of holiness, nothing is. I took the vow of poverty, but she lived it. She’d give you the shirt off her back and the grace from her soul.

Then I said,

Let me read you another passage from Pope Francis that I quote often. It makes this same point. He says, “those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.” Isn’t that amazing?

While there are lots of reasons why this is true, one of the most important is that the vocation of marriage and family life opens for us a very different path to God and life of prayer than that of a celibate, contemplative nun or monk. Marriage and family become part of the very definition of our intimacy with God. He loves them infinitely more than we do, so when we speak of them and their needs to Him, His heart leaps and His heart fuses with ours.

She said, “Damn…oops!” We laughed.

Fidelity, Fatherhood and Prayer

When Ashley and our daughter Maria performed the other week at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, as part of the Al Copeland Foundation’s “Chicken Jam” fundraiser which supports new local cancer research, education and patient programs, it was for me, my wife and our other children a blended experience of joy, nerves and pride. This was their largest venue thus far, with nearly an hour to fill with music.

They soared.

There was even a friend of mine, herself a musician (and a theologian), who flew all the way from Chicago to New Orleans just to see and hear them. I told her that all of us were overwhelmed by her show of support, but she quipped back, “Support? Are you kidding? They don’t need my support! I just wanted to hear them perform live!”

Growing up, I passed by so many opportunities to try new things that involved the vulnerability of risk. I lived with a certain fear of failure, of being shamed by peers, and so mostly chose to blend in and pick the low-hanging fruit, playing it safe. This is not a ‘woe is me,’ simply a statement of fact.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand (aka grace), after my faith conversion in 1987, I rapidly shed a large portion of those fears and began to venture out into new and uncharted territories. I am exceedingly grateful to God for this, as so much of what I have been able to do in my life would never have been had I remained in the prison of fear.

Raising our own children, Patti and I, encouraged by so many extraordinary parents, families and friends we came to know, worked mightily to offer them an environment and opportunities to spread their wings, to risk new adventures, to discover the gifts God has placed in them.

Innumerable times over the years, the ghosts of my past would haunt me in the night, warning me of grave dangers that awaited my children were they to step out into the unknown. These shadows, bearing weapons of fear and despair, knew well my weaknesses. Without prayer, which I clung to in those nights, I don’t know how I could have pressed on with confidence for our children.

This is where my vocation as father saved me, the knowledge that my children needed me to be something far larger than those constricted spaces of my soul circumscribed by my own limits. Fatherhood called me to transcend those limits for them, to remove my gaze from my own issues and choose instead to focus on the potential of their God-given greatness. As a Confessor once said to me, “They are God’s children, only yours on loan. Help them seek His vision for them, not yours. His is much bigger and better.”

I recall a very specific time when I was bogged down by a “Tom-limit” in dealing with one of our children who was facing a very difficult time. My wife, who detected my struggle, directly confronted me on it. It was an important epiphany for me. She said,

I know what you’re thinking and what you’re afraid of, but you’ve got to remember that it’s your issue. You can’t let it get in the way of letting [our child] learn for himself how much he can handle. You have to set aside your own stuff, step out of yourself and challenge him to see just how far he can go. God knows and I know what you want to protect him from, but he doesn’t need to know.

Wow, when someone knows you that well there’s just no hiding. What a grace! I am convinced that those who lack such vulnerability in a friendship simply cannot grow. That day, I grew. As did my son.

All of our children have vastly transcended my limits, by God’s grace, each discovering their signature uniqueness, going places I would never have dreamed of going. It’s awesome to see. While they have and will always face the hardships life brings, and fail along the way, to see their wings spread, their hearts swell, their gifts blossom, their characters solidify, their faith come alive in a way wholly unique to each … well, there are few greater joys I can imagine sharing in life with my wife.

One of my favorite prayers has become sharing with God my constant amazement over the miracle that is each of our children. I am grateful when I see my own good qualities in them, exceedingly grateful when I see them surpass my limits, and overwhelmed with gratitude when I see God draw out good for them from my own failures as a father.

Ashley and Maria sang that night a song I had never heard before, Fidelity by Regina Spector. As they sang, I was awash in gratitude while standing with my family and my friend from Chicago. Copious tears streamed down my face, at those words…

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart…

That’s it. Love has broken my heart. May it never recover.

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Well, it breaks my heart
Suppose I never ever met you
Suppose we never fell in love
Suppose I never ever let you
Kiss me so sweet and so soft
Suppose I never ever saw you
Suppose you never ever called
Suppose I kept on singing love songs
Just to break my own fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Break my fall
Break my fall
All my friends say
That of course it’s
Gonna get better
Gonna get better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in my mind
All of this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart

Naked Prayer

11th Station. pinimg.com

Pray always! He knows our needs better than we do! Indeed, persevering prayer is the expression of faith in a God who calls us to fight with him every day and at every moment in order to conquer evil with good. — Pope Francis

In the days when my father was dying, he frequently prayed. He was severely limited in his ability to move or communicate, but quite a number of times he made the sign of the cross at great cost of pain. And he groaned the word “mercy” countless times, and one of the few times he spoke to me, he said, “Terrible. Thank God.”

It was awe inspiring to witness.

He had mentioned to me many times over the last several years about the importance of facing the “final agony,” the death throes that accompany the end of life, with courage and surrender. He said, “It’s when God has finally taken it on Himself to humble you before He takes you,” adding with a chuckle, “which is going to take a lot of work for me.”. Another time he said something like this, which I wrote down later,

Our Lord made it clear in the Passion that when prayer cuts across the grain of your soul, when pain turns you in on yourself and you choose prayer, you will it, this is an act of great spiritual power. Praying with a naked will in the pitch black, stripped of all the spiritual sweets, is when love becomes agapē. Which is what saves us.

I always thought of the Agony in the Garden this way after he shared that insight, as Jesus’ prayer shifted from a petition aligned with the grain of His soul — “let this cup pass me by” — to a petition that cut across the grain of His soul — “but not my will, but yours be done.” On the cross He continued to pray this way, extending to the extreme “thy will be done,” no doubt with countless naked acts of the will amid excruciating muscle spasms. For us men and for our salvation.

My dad taught me in his dying a new way of praying. When my spirit is far removed from the desire to pray, I now want to pray more than ever. Sure, fitfully mostly, but I attempt to rouse my naked will to Him with love. I hope at least approximating agapē.

Next time you feel conditions in life are most inhospitable to prayer, cutting across the grain of your soul, then pray as you never have prayed.

For us.

High Fives or Watered Gardens?

[beware: this is a meandering post]

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
To choose always the hardest. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was talking with one of my children the other night [I will say it is my son to keep it non-specific] about people who spend their lives fending off all criticism and any honest feedback from others. Actually, we were speaking of a specific person, but then generalized a bit. Whether by isolating themselves, feigning omniscience, posturing as the mountaintop cynic, claiming a victim status (not my fault), or sustaining an elaborate set of strategies to elicit praise, affirmation and agreement from those around them, these people live in a perpetual buffered zone.

He said, “You just can’t get close to them because you can never be totally real with them. You can’t have a real discussion because you know they’re going to go into defensive mode and it’s always about them winning. It’s like they’re always trying to prove something or can’t learn from you, and that’s just so fake and annoying.”

The conversation was sparked after we listened to a recent live performance by Sigrid of her song, High Five, which is all about this kind of person.

We talked about the best way to relate to this person and maybe help them not feel so threatened or just to face the facts. We talked about this person’s family upbringing and what in the family system might have helped to form those ways of dealing with life. We also agreed that all of us can fall into variations of that pattern, making the distance between us and this person only a matter of degree. He said, “Yeah, I pray for him to get a dose of humility and for me to have patience.”

We talked about the importance of honest friendships or even good therapy to confront such things. I said to my son that one of the main goals of friendship and of therapy is to help us to acquire virtues, like courage, humility or honesty, and added, “Years ago I went to therapy, and quickly learned that in the end it’s there to help you become a good person, not just a more functional person. In fact, the underlying goal of all education is supposed to be cultivating a virtuous character. But we’ve mostly lost that.”

One thing my wife did/does exceptionally well as a parent is work hard at intentionally cultivating virtues in our children and their friends. When they were younger, she gave an award to our children at the end of each school year honoring their unique “beatitude” virtues. For her, chores were about solidarity, dealing with irritating siblings was about patience, organizing your time well was a matter of prudence, admitting you messed up was about practicing humility, putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher was linked to justice, serving in the soup kitchen was a work of mercy, or asking someone how their day went (and then listening) meant choosing charity over selfishness.

Once when one of our children said, “I don’t feel like doing that,” Patti replied, “If I did what I felt like, you’d starve.” She also liked to say, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”

I flew up to D.C. to meet with the late Carmelite scholar, Fr. Kieran Kavanagh, back in 2006 to discuss my dissertation on St. John of the Cross. It was a great honor. Among the many things he taught me, I recall him saying something particularly remarkable. “One might say,” he said in his very gentle voice, “that for St. Teresa the whole purpose of prayer is to grow virtue. Because when you grow virtue, your soul is conformed to the divine image and so is most suitable to union with God. To be merciful is to be disposed to union with divine mercy; to be just, disposed to union with divine justice; kind, with His kindness; and so on.”

He then added, “As you know, she describes different kinds of prayer as various methods of acquiring water, and says the virtues are flowers in the garden of the soul. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say for her the water of prayer is given for sake of the flowers of virtue. Which means if you want to judge the health of your prayer life, she’d tell you, don’t concern yourself with lofty feelings or inspired sentiments. No, she’d say examine your response next time someone crosses you…”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

The Confessor I went to on retreat said this to me, in his thick German accent, after I had revealed my sins. He expanded on his words,

You are working so hard to please God, and this is good. And you have failed, and have shared this openly with God. Now you can know His mercy, and when you know His mercy you know something about God even the angels cannot know — the Father’s tender compassion for you as His son. Remember before anything else, you must always go down with Jesus into the water of forgiveness and receive the Father’s tender words, ‘My beloved son.’

Jesus went to the Cross to allow you to hear these words.

But if you don’t allow these words to enter you and define you, you will cling to other identities that will leave you wanting. No matter what happens, no matter how you fail, no matter how others fail you — the Father always, always loves you.

Then he told me to allow St. John the Baptist to take me down to the Jordan, to lead me to Jesus. “He is the forerunner, he prepares the way and is a great saint for leading us to the Father by leading us to Jesus.”

I did, and my takeaway was this: “Become a more loving father by knowing your identity as a beloved son, by allowing yourself to be loved by the Father.” So simple, so basic, so fundamental, so profound, so easy to forget. All I could think of throughout the afternoon was a line from St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans,

There is within me a water
that lives and speaks,
saying to me inwardly,
‘Come to the Father.’

That water of baptism, first sanctified in the Jordan, contains within it the whole mystery of life and death. St. John the Baptist, lead me in to taste there of the Father’s tender mercy. There I can learn to be the father my children deserve.

Father-forever

2005

Sometimes you gotta bleed to know
That you’re alive and have a soul
But it takes someone to come around
To show you how. — Tyler Joseph

At some point during their eighteenth year, I go out to eat a meal with each of my children and ask them about their experience of me as a father. How would they describe it? What did I do well? What did I not do well? What were the most memorable moments?

It’s both terrifying and exhilarating to ask and listen, and those conversations, thus far, have been incomparable treasures for me. Not only do these conversations allow me to learn more about fatherhood and gain wisdom about myself, but more than anything they open a pathway of open communication with each child for the future. I want them to know love is two ways, that they can speak to me as adults, with friendship as the long term goal. “I no longer call you children, but friends.” Yes, father-forever, of course. But what I have looked forward to most is a friendship with human beings whom I consider remarkable.

What I have thus far learned from them in these conversations is (to keep it generic) that, more than anything else, we fathers do well to be careful with consistency (in discipline and in matching words-deeds); to not discipline in anger as it distracts from the lesson and focuses on the parent in a not-good way; to not promise and fail to follow through; and to frequently and intentionally waste time with your child as they grow up is a gift that pays huge long-term dividends in their souls (e.g. fish, play, non-directive talk, laugh, eat as a family, hike, swim, toss the ball, play board games, work in the soup kitchen as a family).

I also learned that they really are grateful for all the things we said “no” to that helped them say “yes” to even better things. And I learned that the best way to hand on the Faith is to associate it with joy in a community of joyful, authentic, real-deal believers (which is why we frequently invite all kinds of cool, normal, fun people of faith into our home).

Oh, they are grateful for our emphasis on education, for teaching them them the value of working, for the example of seeing us read books and newspapers, for not be on our phones often, for loving music so much as to fill the house with it, and for taking interest in their friends and welcoming them into our family.

There’s so much more, and many very funny things, but those above stood out to me. Man, I sure wish they had told me all of this before they were born! I told them as much. 🙂 Fatherhood is wasted on the young! So much I would change, looking back. Thank God for all the good and godly men in my life who have taught me wisdom I would never have known. For me, they were/are what the Lord said of Himself:

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. — John 14:9

I love to quote what my grandfather once wrote me when our first son was born, “Don’t believe those who tell you, Tommy, that when your child is born you become a father. No! Your child rips fatherhood out of you. But the trick is, you have to let them do it.”

So today, dads, thank your children for the rips and tears they have left in your heart. Those paternal scars you will one day, in the Age to Come, discover were unimaginably glorious in beauty and life-giving for the children God gave you to love with His own Fatherly love poured out in the ripped Heart of His Son.

And thank God for my own father, Edmond, who has passed on into the Age to Come. May the Father grant him light, happiness and peace, and may his scars heal into glory. Amen.