Disability is not the last word on life

[still a busy week that will be tough for writing, but I felt moved to share this video]

How eloquent are your words for us today, Lord of life and hope! Every human limitation is ransomed and redeemed in you. Thanks to you, disability is not the last word on life. Love is the last word; it is your love that gives meaning to life. Help us to turn our hearts to you; help us to recognize your face shining in every human creature, however tried by toil, hardship and suffering. Make us understand that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” — St. John Paul II

“Still, at a cultural level there are still expressions that offend the dignity of the person and that maintain a false concept of life. An often narcissistic and utilitarian view, unfortunately, increasingly leads to the consideration of people with disabilities as marginal, without seeing in them the multifaceted human and spiritual wealth that they possess. There is still a strong attitude of rejection of this condition in the collective mentality, as though it prevented the individual from being happy and self-fulfilled. Proof of this is the eugenic tendency to eliminate the unborn child that shows some form of imperfection. In fact, we all know many people who, even in their fragility and with great effort, have found the way to live a good life and richly meaningful life.” — Pope Francis

Un-mute this video it as it begins:

Sheer grace


[This post from 2013 came to mind as I showed the video below to a friend last week]

“There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering.”— St. Ambrose

I met a woman recently who shared with me the story of her husband’s infidelity, and their subsequent journey of reconciliation. It was breathtaking. I asked her if I could share the insights from the story with my readers and she graciously agreed. Here is what I later wrote down, written in her voice.

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It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a slow drift, years. We had just grown apart, gotten busy, had developed other interests. We got comfortable is the best way to say it. Nothing ever bad or hurtful, he was kind to me and I to him. And I just thought, okay, maybe this is just what happens for some couples. I had the kids and friends and church, and I found ways to deal with no intimacy. But I can see now that we both just stopped fighting for each other, for what our marriage was. And then he did that and it shattered my entire world.

After all of this happened, and he left the other woman, I found out I had cancer and then he lost his job. It seemed like everything we had relied on, the comforts and securities of life, had been ripped out of our hands. And suddenly everything we had once thought important and safe just fell away. What we did have was each other, and we had our children, family, friends, faith. I know its sounds so cliche, but only when everything collapses do you really see life is so damned fragile, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Clearly it took that to shake us awake. Thanks be to God it didn’t tear us apart in the end. That’s sheer grace, let me tell you.

During the time of my health crisis, I could see so clearly that our priorities before all this happened were totally out of whack. The frenetic press of life we kept up to acquire material comforts, our compulsive busyness (which was really distracting us from our misery), taking each other for granted, all of this had made it so easy for anything to pull the rug out from under us. We had lost each other over the years and he fell. But really, we fell. I can see both of our responsibility for it now. Never could have then.

After I found out about his cheating, I was so angry and bitter. I wanted to punish him bad. I wanted to spend all of his money, ruin his reputation and leave him impoverished. Even after he came back and begged my forgiveness when he’d left her. But then the cancer struck, and he lost his job. And everything just looked so different.

I remember one time we sat alone in the oncologist’s office waiting forever for the doctor to come, and we were just silent. I know he was guilt ridden, and I was angry, felt alone and terrified. You could have cut the air with a knife. And then he just broke down, and then I broke down, and we embraced and sobbed. I forgave him, and he received that through his tears. We knew all we had was each other. Again, sheer grace.

For me, now, that’s where God is most present — between two people who having nothing left but love. But each other.

When you share this, my message to everyone is, check your priorities. If everything was taken away from you, but you could keep just one thing, what would be left? What would it be? Then ask yourself, is your life built around that one thing, or something else? Fight for it. Don’t wait. And ask God to help before it’s too late.

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.

Marriage: the greatest form of friendship


My wife Patti, and our daughter Catherine, in 2003

[Re-post 2016]

After the love that unites us to God, conjugal [marital] love is the greatest form of friendship. — St. Thomas Aquinas

I love her and that is the beginning and end of everything. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation the other day when I was in Maryland and the priest, who I’d guess was in his 70’s, said something terribly striking to me after I had finished confessing. He asked me how many years I had been married, and then said,

You cannot forget that when you married 21 years ago, and vowed yourself to your your wife in a quite absolute way, from that moment on there is no other person in the whole world whom Almighty God commands you to love more than her. She’s your number one. Metaphysically. She alone commands a devotion from you that is like that given to God alone, with the whole of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Even your body belongs to her.

She is not just your neighbor, you and she are now a Sacrament, and what you do or fail to do to her, you do or fail to do to the Lord Himself. Do you see what I’m saying? [Yes] Good. So make sure, son, that your children, friends, in-laws, parents, siblings, co-workers — everyone — knows she is number one always. Everything after God comes second to her, and the best litmus test is to ask her if she feels like that is true. I want you to ask her that when you get a quiet moment together — “Do you feel like you’re the most important person in my universe?” Okay? [Okay, Father] Good, now say a good act of contrition…

Now that was impactful, words for the ages in my book.

I couldn’t help but think of this line in the Catholic Catechism #2365:

St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: “I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us. I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.”

Frittered away by detail


[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

“Let them praise his name with dancing” — Psalm 149:3

[I already wrote on this in 2016, but felt strangely moved to write this post anew. So here it goes…]

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance. I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service.’ — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope. — Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 219

I am very poor at dancing, my wife is quite good. I didn’t grow up with anyone who loved to dance, or even liked to dance. When I was in college, I would only dance under the influence of alcohol, so I remember very little of that. And let’s just say dancing thus didn’t lend itself to chastity. After my faith conversion experience, I lost all interest in dancing because I couldn’t imagine it being anything but compromising for me. I found my physical outlet in weight lifting, softball, volleyball, jogging and swimming, but dance held no interest for me.

And then I fell in love with my wife in 1994 and all that changed.

One evening, about three months into our dating, she surprised me with a romantic dinner party outside on her apartment’s back deck. I came to the door to pick her up and take her out to dinner, and one of Patti’s neighbors, an 80+ year old salt named Robert E. Lee, startled me by intercepting me at my car door to “escort you to the finest dining experience in all of Tallahassee, with a lovely lady who, I understand, loves you very much.”

Steak was smoking on the grill, flanked by baked potatoes wrapped in foil. There was white wine already poured, set on a beautifully adorned patio table surrounded by tiki torches, bathed in Sinatra-genre music and presided over by a gorgeous woman in an equally gorgeous white dress. I was dazed.

She gave me my first formal dance lesson right then and there as we danced to Nat King Cole singing, When I Fall in Love. And we continued to dance for several hours after dinner. It was truly one of those transcendent life-moments — a kairos — that you never forget, that defines you in some deep and new way. That night completely changed — redeemed — the way I thought of dancing, because it was an expression of chaste and genuine love. It’s one of those memories that brings with it (to this day) all the feelings, smells, sights, sounds and tastes of that evening, as if it ended only hours ago.

Last October on our 22nd wedding anniversary, we relived that night of memories and discussed what was so special about it. We both agreed that it had a sacramental quality to it, as it made present in a crazy-tangible way God’s love for us, between us.

After years of being fed the spiritualized lie that loving God required me to view all other human loves as a mere “means to an end” (uti), the end being God alone, my love for Patti allowed me see how the experience of God’s love enhanced our love for each other, and vice versa — that night, and ever since then. This is the deepest truth of God becoming Man, God’s irrevocable affirmation that love for Him, love for human beings and love for His good creation are all integral to our one destiny of perfect fulfillment (frui). Our fulfillment is not in God alone, but in Jesus Christ, who is not God alone but Word-made-flesh, God-with-us in train (John 1:14). Only sin renders these alien to one another.

I wrote in my journal the next morning, “Divine and human love aren’t competitors, I felt so profoundly last night. How liberating. His Face, her face, one grace. If God’s name is love, then we praised His name mightily all night with our dancing. And if we marry, my love for Him will be her, and my love for her, Him. My God, our love then becomes a grace drenched, God-giving and God-receiving Sacrament…”

And it was, incidentally, on that night that I internally resolved to marry her, and seven months later proposed.

Ever since then, every time we get to dance, I am filled with that same presence that re-binds us together.

But two years ago, I had an amazing experience. Patti and I had not danced in quite a long time, but we found an opportunity to go out together and listen to a live band. And dance. It had been so long since I’d danced that I was feeling a bit ‘off’ and self-conscious. Though she was fully abandoned to the rhythm, as ever, I was not able to really enter into it as freely. But it was still fun. The next morning, I woke up to a voice message from an African American priest friend of mine (who very infrequently calls me) who said, “Dr. Neal, I was praying last night for you and got this crazy sense that Jesus wanted me to tell you to not be afraid to dance like a white boy. That when you get to heaven He wants you to dance. So go ahead and dance, Dr. Neal!”

I immediately wrote in my journal, “Yes, yes! He wants to dance with me in heaven, beginning now with my wife. His dance, her dance, one dance.”