Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee

…for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company — Bar. 5:9

This text from today’s first reading at Mass has a quiet beauty about it. Especially, “leading Israel in joy.” Let me share here some fragmented thoughts on joy.

Joy, in the Christian tradition, is a fruit of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are side-effects of living life in harmony with the will of God. I like to define joy as delight in the fulfillment of goodness, beauty and truth, all of which are the summation of a life lived in love. But unlike happiness, which demands fulfillment in the present, joy feeds off of a confident trust in the future promise of fulfillment assured by a God who is trustworthy and able.

Joy can be as elusive as the future.

This all means joy and hope are close companions. Hence, the God who “leads Israel in joy” is the God who has established for His people, in a hopeless present, the promise of a future full of hope.

Like hope, joy intensifies as the present experience of darkness holds the bright promise of future fulfillment in relief. Through the cross to the Light.

Joy requires a clear vision of our promised future fulfillment, and of the way that leads there. The vision is what we call faith, and the way is what we call love. Faith is the vision of both the Giver and that which we have been called to receive; hope is the Giver’s promise that grounds our confidence that we will receive it; love is the manner in which we receive; and joy is the delight in all three.

Jesus Himself is the Giver, the Guarantor, the Truth of our vision, the Life that is our ultimate fulfillment, and the Way of love by which we are led into joy.

Pat, who had become a dear friend of our family back in the mid 1990’s, was dying of cancer. He was terrified of death, as he feared his long life of selfish malice, of breaking hearts and lives would be waiting for him at the Last Judgment he was soon to face. His recent conversion back to faith, and life of repentance and charity, was no solace for him. He imagined only that the proportion of a few years of good will set against decades of wrongdoing would weigh against him in the final scales of justice.

Pat was joyless because he refused to accept mercy as a recklessly free gift given by a prodigal God to the undeserving. In his pain, Pat turned in on himself, wallowing in fear, drowning in anger-turned-inward, instead of “opening to the Sun above” whose joy over Pat’s return would surpass — O Paradox! — even His infinity.

My wife brought our children to visit Pat in the hospice one day. When they walked in the room, Pat began to cry. Our youngest son, about 5 at the time, jumped up into the bed and excitedly said to Pat, “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay!” Pat began to sob, and said loudly, “No it’s not!” Because of the commotion, the woman who was caring for Pat, who was a devout Catholic, told my wife that it’s probably better if they leave so he can settle down.

Later that day this woman called me to share with me the story of what followed their visit. She said,

After they left, Pat was inconsolable and agitated. So I went to his bedside and said, “Pat, listen to me. Did you feel that little boy’s innocence and love in his words to you? Didn’t you feel God in him?” Pat seemed to calm a bit, and agreed. Then I said, “Don’t you see that Jesus sent him to you to speak those words on His behalf? Pat, Jesus wanted you to know that those are the words you will hear when you die and face Him. ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay.'”

Pat settled into a calm rest, and when I left the room, he flat-lined. So be sure to tell your wife and son that they were messengers of heaven and let Pat die in peace.

And joy.

Tout est grâce, “all is grace.”

Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
And oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah

“It has been completed,” said the dying God

Christ the King. executedtoday.com

After several weeks away from blogging, I am preparing to restart in the next few days.

What a feast today! The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The ending of the liturgical year, reflective of the coming end of the ages that Jesus finalized on the cross when He said, Tetelestai, “It has been completed” (John 19:30).

Jesus Christ, the all-ruling King, “completed” fallen humanity’s royal-priestly vocation while hanging on the cross, but only at the very end when His love had reached its most extreme (John 13:1).

Our vocation was to transform the raw material of an unfinished creation into logikēn latreian (Rom 12:1), a living sacrifice of thanksgiving offered to the Father under the form of the daily grind of selfless love for God and neighbor (Rom. 12:2-21).

During Thanksgiving, a woman who has many children and grandchildren was joking with me about how she never gets the gratitude she deserves. But she ended her humorous comments with a comment for the ages, “But does that really matter? In the end it’s God who will judge whether or not my life was worthy of a thank you. Or was a worthy thank you.”

.

May we all live worthy of her tetelestai. Of His.

Family is everything

My paternal grandparents, Edmond and Ruth, were married for 76 years, and my grandfather died just a few weeks shy of 100 years old. They had an immense impact on my life, and their memory lives on in my own family like an undimmed lighthouse.

These photos, taken when my son Nicholas was 1, were taken the last time we saw them both before they developed Alzheimer’s. When I found these pictures recently, I was flushed with a thousand emotions. How I miss them and wish they were still here! What I would give for another hour long phone call to hear them tell life stories, encourage us to stick to priorities, work hard, focus on family and faith. I can hear Pop’s voice saying to me, “Family isn’t an important thing, Tommy, it’s everything” or “Be sure to waste more time just being with your children than you spend keeping them busy. Time wasted, hearts gained.”

As my wife and I have never lived near either of our families, I am so grateful that my own 92 year old mother lives here in New Orleans so our children get to experience how important grandparents are, see what the challenges of old age are like, and learn how to be patient with a failing memory. But most important to me, my mom offers them a privileged opportunity to embrace my family history as their own.

When my dad was dying last Spring, my children were also able to see the painful effects of my parents’ divorce on me, my mom and my own family, as well as witness the extraordinary power of gestures of reconciliation. In particular, I shared with them, with my mom present, a story from the final days I spent with my dad before he died.

I told them that when I went to see grandpa, I brought a photo of grandma to show him and share with him her “forgiveness, love and prayers.” Though he was mostly non-responsive those last days because of the dementia, when I showed him the photo of my mom, and shared her message, he kept his eyes open and looked intently at it for at least a full minute. And then he said in his faint raspy voice, “I love her forever.” It was Easter Sunday.

In that moment, the distance between my childhood and the present moment collapsed, and a deep chasm was bridged.

I want these things to define my children’s memories. And I want Pope Francis’ wisdom to shape their futures.

Listening to the elderly
tell their stories is good for children and young
people; it makes them feel connected to the living
history of their families, their neighborhoods
and their country. A family that fails to respect
and cherish its grandparents, who are its living
memory, is already in decline, whereas a family
that remembers has a future. A society that has
no room for the elderly or discards them because
they create problems, has a deadly virus; it is
torn from its roots. Our contemporary experience
of being orphans as a result of cultural
discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of
the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us
to make our families places where children can
sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. — Pope Francis

Show me the Father

Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring … We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. — Pope Francis

[when I read this quote, it reminded me of a post I had written in 2014…so here it is again]

Quite a number of years ago, my wife and I were friendly with a woman who worked in business with her husband and was (at the time) a mother of two small children. She was smart, was a “mover and a shaker” and had a quick and sarcastic wit. Both she and her husband were very devoted to their Catholic faith and were involved in various parish activities. For all appearances, they were the model thriving family.

The rest of what I share is with permission.

One day the husband asked me if I would meet him for lunch, and after three hours of conversation I understood why. Their marriage was in crisis, and from his perspective it was largely because she was strangling him, and their children, with her relentless and unattainable expectations. He said, “She criticizes everything I do and it’s driving me insane. And it’s making the kids resent her. But I know it’s not her fault. She’s just passing on what she received.”

He went on to tell me she had grown up in a hyper-critical home, with a father who was demanding, never affectionate and who never made her feel she measured up to his expectations. Her mother was passive and never stood up to him to protect her little girl. Then, with copious tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Look, she hates herself and I can’t help her anymore. I have tried to help her love herself, but I’ve reached my limits. I’m done.”

They ended up going to counseling, and made enormous progress. After about six months had passed since the lunch, the woman emailed me a very lengthy note expressing her own feelings of anger and hatred toward God. She said, “I can’t get over the sense that God is far away really and never quite happy with me because I never measure up to his demands. To think of God as a father and me as his daughter is totally suffocating … counseling has made me want to stop living a facade of perfection in my life. But now I’m scared because part of that includes my faith in God which has been a total facade.”

As I do so often with people who ask me to help them grow in their relationship with God, I encouraged her make space for silent prayer in her life. I recommended she try to go to Eucharistic Adoration once a week for an hour, sit quietly in front of Jesus and very simply share all the contents of her heart. Among other things, I said,

When you sit in prayer with Jesus, keep still and just look at Him. Allow whatever is deep inside of you to surface. Don’t run away from whatever agitation rises up in the quiet. Let it burn through you and then speak to Him about it. Give permission to Jesus to enter into your heart freely and surprise you. Say over and over, “Show me the Father.” That is Jesus’ entire mission, so see what He has to say …

A few weeks later, I received a handwritten thank you note from the woman. In it, she said,

… I just had to share this with you. After a few tries in the Chapel taking your advice (which was hard as hell by the way), one night I experienced for the first time in my entire life the feeling of being washed with unconditional love from God the Father. You know what a big deal that is. I was a total wreck and it’s all your fault! 🙂 But here’s the million dollar insight I got — I can only love myself when I know I’m loved like that by somebody who knows me through and through and not just the fake me that was most of my life …

I’m sure you know from your wife that a woman just wants to be noticed … That’s totally what I knew that night. God noticed everything inside of me. All the crap especially. But here’s the new part: that’s what he loved. The crap! Not just the “perfect” parts of me which were the only parts I ever felt were lovable. Excuse my French, but that’s just f-ing wild …

We are the body of Christ

[re-post from 2017]

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked.– St. John Chrysostom

When our son Michael was a baby, he had colic, which can be defined as your baby crying without ceasing for no apparent reason. My wife went without much sleep for the first six months of his life, as he nursed day and night without more than a few hours break for sleep. After six months, he fell into a much more normal rhythm and stopped his perpetual crying.

Among the tricks we learned for helping him fall asleep in those first six months was singing to him together. For whatever reason, our blended voices had more effect. And there was one song in particular that he responded to more than any other, David Haas’ Table Song. Since I knew the bass harmony, we would sing it in two parts.

We must have sung it over a hundred times in those six months. Whenever I hear it now, I am immediately transported back to those bleary days. In fact, last month on Michael’s 22nd birthday, we sang it for him. He teared up, saying it stirred something deep in him.

I remember one time in particular when Patti and I were awakened at around 1:30 a.m. to his screaming. She had only been asleep for about two hours, so she was feeling overwhelmed. As she sat in the bed nursing, we began to sing Table Song:

We are the body of Christ
Broken and poured out.
Promise of life from death
We are the body of Christ.

In the middle of the song, Patti said,

I just got it. That’s us. It just dawned on me that we three are the body of Christ. This is what Jesus wants our life to be like. I can feel Him here in our little church. Can’t you?

Watching her nursing, being “broken and poured out,” it was impossible for me not to feel Him. Pope Francis’ words here ring with infallible truth:

Hence, 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.

Legend

[this TØP-inspired post dedicated to the Shuttle–Maria, Catherine, Sydney, Ashley, Nina, Swan and Daniela!:)<3]

You were one of those classic ones
Traveling around this sun
You were one of those classic ones
I wish she knew you
You were one of those classic ones
Now everybody knows
You were one of those classic ones, yeah — Twenty One Pilots

My grandfather, Pop, who was 99 when he died 11 years ago, is a legend in my mind. “One of the classic ones.” A tough, scrappy and world-wise man with cauliflower ears from his boxing years, and an immense heart for his grandchildren. He and Nana were married for 76 years. In my world, they were a defiant lighthouse, a steady axis, an immovable rock, a harbor of refuge that had resisted the relentless pounding of life’s storms.

In their lifelong embrace, my peace.

I remember the first few years after we were married, Patti and I would call Nana and Pop fairly regularly. They would always be on the phone together, and would playfully tease each other relentlessly throughout the conversation. Pop would wax eloquent sharing aphorisms or telling family stories, while Nana would intermittently engage in a “fact check.” To him, she was “doll,” and to her, he was “dad.”

Once, when Patti and I went up to Walpole, Massachusetts to visit them with our two toddler sons, we sat with them in their condo for several hours talking about the early years of their marriage in the late 1920’s. All the while, our boys crawled onto and off of their laps. The lunch we shared together that day was a sacramental experience Patti and I will never forget. The next time we visited them, they were together in an Alzheimer’s care facility, unable to recognize us. Yet somehow, Pop still called Nana “doll.”

In the memory of their marriage, my heart finds a spacious world in which I can dream of my wife and I also joyfully living and loving long.

Pop wrote me 26 handwritten letters between 1986 and 1996, pages filled with his hard-won wisdom about everything from friendship to faith to family to failure. They are pearls of great price, and a testament to an age when parents and grandparents considered it a noblesse oblige to pass on wisdom within the family from generation to generation. May my wife and I do the same.

As I recently re-read Pop’s 1995 letter to us, sent just before our wedding, these were the lines that leapt off the page. Reading them, my heart overflows with emotion. May Pop and Nana dance together for us in the wedding feast of Paradise.

….in the end you realize that nothing is greater in life than love. But only the love stronger than death, not the glitter of passing sentiments, will keep you together here and beyond the grave.

Tom and Patti, if I have one credo which epitomizes my philosophy of confrontation with the fortuities of life and the species homo sapiens, it is this little Serenity Prayer. I have carried it in my billfold for over 50 years. It is yellow with time and usage:

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.”

This recapitulates in a few words all the tomes on philosophy ever since Thales. Make it the motto of your marriage.

…to you we bequeath our heritage, our fidelity and reverence for each other and our gratefulness to God for bringing us together. We know He has never shed one tear of regret!

We love you both,
Nana and Pop

My Blood

Last night we had a dear friend over for dinner. He made dinner for us. Served us. What a gift that is, such a humbling gesture of generosity. The simple joys of life and friendship are what give life a soul.

Over dinner, our son Nick, who is getting his B.S. in physics, was sharing insights into the wave-particle theory of light he was learning about in his Quantum Theory class. Absolutely fascinating, though 95% of it was likely out of my field of vision. After dinner, we treated our guest to some of the music from Twenty One Pilots’ new album, Trench. Among other songs, we watched TOP’s music video My Blood. It’s a stunning story-song about a child who had to develop ways to cope with his life’s hardships…

As the evening wore on, Maria and Ashley practiced some music with my wife, Michael came home from a day at the beach with his girlfriend, and Catherine came home from her play practice and we studied for a Religion test. My my, I work mightily to drink in the beauty of these days of our life as a family, as I know they will soon pass away, as they all must. Into something new.

Though passing, they live on alive in my memory, especially at night.

…I went to bed, praying in thanksgiving for these graces. Too many to count. In the middle of the night I awoke to a flooding downpour. I love a rainy night. As I watched it fall powerfully in the absolutely still air, with a steady roar, I remembered some painful and frightening scenes from my childhood. Not certain why. Maybe the video of My Blood had filled my mind. I recalled my “older brother” who had shielded me from some of the harder blows life had for me. An elusive friend, a nearby brother.

I could see dimly in these moments of pouring remembrance what I had not imagined before: a child searching about in Christ-haunted shadows.

My Brother, with me. Now I see.

Yet I did not know Him, with me. Do we really ever? Only in memory of. Especially those endless hours I spent alone out in the deep woods.

Jesus said: “Split wood, I am there.
Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” — Gospel of Thomas saying 77b.

Deo gratias.