Slaying in me all resistance

A Senior (Maria, right) and a Sophomore (Catherine)

“The soul is healed by being with children.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

[Written on 8.17.17]

This morning, the first day of a new school year, I made breakfast for my daughters while Patti made their lunches. They skipped downstairs at 6:00 a.m., which stands next to the parting of the Red Sea in terms of miracle categories.

Catherine, armed with her new driver’s permit, drove us to school. Slow down. Watch out. Put your blinker on. Hurry! Not that lane. Too late. Dad, I can do it! Well done. Whew.

When I came home from work that night, Maria was sporting her new senior sweater. The joy in her face. Dear God. Dismantled me. Resistance is futile. Lost in her joie de vivre. My heart hurt, broke, bled.

“Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous.
It is to decide forever to have your heart
go walking around outside your body.” ― Elizabeth Stone

Then Catherine impetuously pulled me down into a chair so she could tell me all the details of her day. I listened, wishing I could communicate the love she drew out of me, slaying in me all resistance to fatherhood.

In the end it’s not the harshness of self-denial or steely-willed determination that sets you running, it’s the other whom you love who draws you out of yourself after them; after Him.

Ek-stasis. Ruth 1:16-17.

As Fr. Stan says this so succinctly with his acronym, FAMILY = forget about me I love you. A life could, should be built on this.

See how love is strong.
Life, do not trouble me.
See how all that remains
Is in losing you to gain.
Come now, sweet death,
Come, dying, swiftly.
I die because I do not die. — St. Teresa of Jesus

In a culture that centers fulfillment on the self, others must die. In a culture that centers fulfillment on the other, I must die.

I’ve shared this here before. My grandfather wrote me in a letter soon after the birth of our first son,

People who tell you that you “become a father” when your children are born don’t know what they’re talking about. You don’t become a father, children rip fatherhood out of you, in the joys and in the sorrows.

Today was a rip of joy.

“I die because I do not die,” as I have yet so long to journey.

My boys, so differently, rip fatherhood from me. But due to an apodictic gag order from both of them I have almost always refrained here from ever mentioning any details. But let me say, using a metaphor that comes to mind, that whereas the girls fatherfy me in a dance, the boys do so in a brawl.

Every day, as I pray my morning offering of the laity, I gather all these “little things” up, lifting them into the immense glory of His immortal Kingdom where the lowly are magnified and where time flows gently into eternity.

Lord Jesus, at the dawn of this day make of my life a living sacrifice acceptable to you. May my life be at each moment your Fire cast out into the world, consecrating all to the service of your Kingdom. Through my life, joined to your Cross, gather the good and the wicked into your merciful Heart. Through my life, joined to your Cross, transfigure all creation into that new creation where, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, all the lost are found and you are all in all. Amen.

A harsh and dreadful thing

jtbarts.com

[I had planned to skip today, but when I was awakened this morning early this post was insistently knocking]

I was speaking with a friend the end of last week about family dysfunction and the depth of pain it can engender. She said, “It’s easy to feed the poor and walk away from them; or to do good for strangers and feel good about it as you go home for the evening; but when it’s your messed-up family you have to deal with, well, there’s no getting away. You can talk about love, but when you have to do it with people permanently connected to you who despise you, it’s really hard.” Then she quoted this line from Dostoevsky I’d never heard, but now will never forget — “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

After she left, I sat in silence for a while just processing. She’s the kind of person whose words, because they are so sincere, just cut to the heart.

I’ve often quoted Thoreau’s line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” A religious order priest I knew in south Florida introduced me to it when he was telling me about his priestly work in what Pope Francis now calls the “ministry to the margins.”  This priest worked in tandem with several drug rehab facilities to help the families of recovering addicts find support and a way forward. He told me that among the families he dealt with were middle class to upper middle class families who, to outsiders, seemed to be happy, ideal, functional families. They had become masters of illusion. But what the addiction crisis had done is force them to drop the facade and face the depth of dysfunction and pain. “In fact,” he said (and I will never forget this),

if I spend any time in compassionate listening with anyone — of any socio-economic class, race or creed — very soon a story of pain or hardship will surface. Suffering doesn’t discriminate. I’m not a psychologist or a social worker, and don’t pretend to be. My ministry is simple: help people to get real, stop glossing over the stink in their life, get real with Jesus and invite Him into the mess. Most people, in my experience, don’t see faith as anything more than a stop-gap for their crap. Maybe they say a prayer to God when things go south, but they keep God at a safe distance. At best religion dulls the pain like Advil or distracts with some nice hollow cliche like, “It’ll all work out in the end.”

I tell them: Let’s get real with God. Jesus wants to get His hands dirty and deal with the rot. He’s not impressed with your stiff upper lip. And Jesus makes “getting real” easy for me, when I can just take out my crucifix and ask them to hold it, look at Him and speak to Him honestly from the heart about their whole world of hurt. 99% of them have never done anything resembling that before. Yet that’s what Christianity’s all about! Marx called out this kind of faith as an opiate for people. Faith’s not an opiate, it’s open heart surgery.

He said when he got out of seminary and was first a priest, his hyper-idealism made him think people should be a lot farther ahead in their faith walk than they actually were. So his homilies missed the mark and he’s sure most probably tuned him out — “Not for me.” But over the years, and especially since he began his work with addiction recovery, he saw that helping people just take “the next best step” (his favorite ministry line) could contain the brightest flashes of heroism. Sometimes, he said, it’s heroic to simply honestly acknowledge to myself how messed up my family of origin is; or to speak to my sibling in a civil tone; or speak the words “I forgive you” to my dead uncle for his past crimes against me; or pray for a parent who did me harm. “I tell them,” he continued, “sometimes just these tiniest of steps, when we can manage them, can be immense signs of grace at work in us. Things to be proud of. Before the face of God, these seeming nothings can surpass in merit all the gushing virtues in another person who seems to be so naturally capable of more ‘quantitative’ goodness than I’ll ever be.” He went on to say:

Once when I was con-celebrating a Mass, I heard a priest say in his homily, “only bring God your best when you come to Mass.” I got what he was trying to say, but I wanted to punch him then and there. I told him after Mass that, by saying things like that, he’s cheating people out of hope. Who would ever want to approach God if that’s what it took? Good God. Become a saint and then come to God with your perfect offering. Who needs that? That’s religion for choir boys. I told him he needs to tell them that God dances over tiny mustard seeds of goodness and faith we bring, and doesn’t need us to bring towering sequoias. If there’s anything the crucifix teaches, it’s that God can take the worst we’ve got. He takes sinners like us who are willing to show Him the way it is, even as we don’t like the way it is and want to be better. But for now, God, this is what we’ve got. And He’s pleased.

But without God being invited into our skeleton closet, life’s hell. True? Living in all your crap without hope that there’s a Higher Power out there who cares, who’s ready to get dirty in your screwed up world, and who has a will and a way to take you, raise you up from where you’ve fallen? I don’t know how unbelievers press on without faith. It’s hard enough when you do believe. But when people have a faith that tells them they have to have their shit together first before they can come to God? I’d prefer atheism. And in that church you’ll just have the front-row pews full of a few people living in fantasy land.

A hard-core priest. Servant of a God who is a hard-core realist, which is really the core message of the cross. Realism. God’s love is real, evil in the world is real, therefore God’s love hangs on a cross as a corpse filled with hope in a Father whose will is to raise the dead, to conquer death and hell. God is anti-Pollyanna, since love is the ground of all reality. In Christ, dwelling deep in the pit of hell on a Passover Sabbath, love is a harsh and dreadful thing

for love is strong as death,
jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

He who descends into hell with us, ascends on High for us. Come, O Lord, grasp my faltering hand, enter my darkness, and lead me out of the abyss into your Kingdom.

Solomon the Wise

“God Speaks to Solomon in a Dream” bibleencyclopedia.com

Yesterday we had a faculty retreat to begin the new academic year. It was such a breath of fresh air for all of us, and a nice reunion as most faculty were away for the summer. Here are my sprawling and free-flowing notes I wrote out at the end of the retreat after everyone left. I’ll not post tomorrow because of the length. For what they’re worth…

+ + +

Our retreat director began with the story in 1 Kings 3 of God asking young Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What a frightening request! A divine blank check! As one of my colleagues read this passage aloud, I immediately thought of the Latin dictum, Lex orandi, lex crediendi, “the law of prayer, the law of belief.” Solomon’s response to that open-ended offer would lay bare his faith life and his character as King, since we pray as we believe. “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21). Was Solomon, like his father David, really a man “after the heart of God” (cf Acts 13:22)? It was as if God were asking, “Solomon, son of David, do you love me above all things? Now, let’s see how you pray…”

I kinda wished the reader had stopped for a minute after God’s offer so we could’ve formulated our own response… What would I ask of God?

Solomon passed with flying colors! “The Lord was pleased,” the text says. Why? Because his prayer sought from God what was dearest to God’s heart. He, God’s vicar, sought from God the gift of wisdom to rightly govern His beloved people, and did not seek gifts for himself (long life, riches) or the death of his enemies. Solomon’s prayer recognized that, as king, he was God’s servant. His was only a borrowed glory, a shared governance. So he sought God’s wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge of God’s will (i.e the Law) that is applied through prudential judgment to order one’s own life and the lives of others in accord with that will. The king loves the King principally by ruling faithfully in the King’s stead. Wisdom means ordering our steps in His Word.

[lyrics below]

Jesus, the New Solomon and Wisdom incarnate, teaches us that perfect wisdom is found in the Great Commandment, as charity is the fulfillment of the Law. The wise leader, therefore, shepherds the rabble of sinful humanity into the order of charity, forming them into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). A parent, priest, principal, president tasked with this mission knows it is a brutal, thankless, exhausting task, indeed.

I just noticed Jesus’ thrice posed question to Simon Peter (John 21:15-19) bears a striking resemblance to God’s question to Solomon. Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Of course, Simon Peter vehemently insists that he does love Jesus, but Jesus presses the question further by drawing out its implications — if you love me you will govern those I love, wisely, according to my will: “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.”  And in John 21:18-19 Jesus reminds Peter where the wisdom of charity leads every leader:

When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter passed on the soul of this sage advice to his pastoral successors in 1 Peter 5:1-4. A brutal, thankless, exhausting task, as Pope Francis can no doubt attest. Yet it is a sublimely divine task, as God’s providential laboring love ceaselessly governs, guards, guides and provides for our sorry lot. The burden of leadership, carrying others to God (Numbers 11:14/Luke 15:5) offers ample opportunity for intimate union with the Good Shepherd in our exhaustion, making wise leaders into bleary-eyed, weary-headed, aching-shouldered mystics. Especially: speaking to God about those under our care, tirelessly presenting their needs to Him, is profoundly sanctifying as it very immediately mingles our concern for them with His. And in the end, sanctity is all about melding the whole tangle of our inner and outer lives with His, into a grand + alignment.

It’s why “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to justice, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

A woman I know who has five children, four with serious to severe disabilities, texted me earlier this summer asking for prayers after some rough days they’d had with hospital visits. I texted back: “Man, y’all have had a hard stretch this year.” She replied, “Yup, they exhaust me and wear me out. But God knows I’ll take exhausted with them over rested without them any day.” I texted back the Hebrew word for worship, Shâchâh, which means “face in dirt,” and told her I was doing that after reading her text. For me, heroism makes me want to #1 repent and #2 worship God for giving the world such people.

Yesterday afternoon I met another woman, the cashier at a gas station. When I asked her how she was she said, “Tired and blessed.” I said, “I love that you said ‘and blessed,’ and not ‘but blessed.'” She then told me she worked two other jobs, that her husband died last Fall, leaving her to raise three children and her deceased brother’s son. I said, “What keeps you going?” She replied with such a natural ease, pointing to the cross on her neck chain, “Real simple. Him. He did it for me so I can do it for Him. My kids know I’m only as good as I’m in His grace.” My daughter who was with me said as we walked out, “Wow that was totally random and amazing.”

Shâchâh. 

As Fr. Tom Hopko said, “Some saints are pillars of the world, while others, like me, become saints by allowing those saints to lead us along the way. It’s why devotion to saints in the Orthodox church is absolutely essential. It’s God’s way of keeping us totally inter-dependent. If all were pillars we wouldn’t cling to each other. A Christian alone is no Christian.”

As I sit with all of this here, I can’t help but reflect on the gravity of my vocation as a family man and as a teacher. I have to be like Solomon and ceaselessly beg God for wisdom and to intercede in prayer for those entrusted to my care, who are under my authority or subject to my influence. When I was on my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my 80+ year old spiritual director called me on the carpet for not praying for my wife and children by name every day. I told him I always mentioned “for my wife and family” when I prayed. But he wasn’t buying it and retorted, “The Shepherd wants names, son. And He wants details.” He continued, “God has entrusted them to your care, Tom, and He will call you to account for it. You can’t manage this one alone. You must realize that their welfare depends just as much on your prayer as it does on your supporting them in every other way. The closer people are to your circle of responsibility, the more serious is your obligation to daily pray for them by name, and pray for God to help you to serve them as they deserve. And,” he added, “you need to ask the Spirit for a double portion of wisdom and counsel because your responsibility is great and you know you’re not too bright when it comes to prudential matters.” We laughed, and then he said, “But I’m serious.”

He ended his loving reproval by saying to me, “Tom, what’s most beautiful to me about intercessory prayer is that even as you ask God to care for others, He invites you to be part of the care He gives. When you ask God to stir into action for others, you’ll feel Him stirring within you. So be careful what you ask for. You just might become it.”

When evening came, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds, so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” “They do not need to go away,” Jesus replied. “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:15-16).

Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz:

Our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness.

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Humbly, I ask Thee teach me Your will
While You are working, help me be still
‘Cos Satan is busy, God is real;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Bridle my tongue let my Words edify
Let the Words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight
Take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

CHORUS
I want to walk worthy
According to Thy will
Please order my steps Lord
And I’ll do Your blessed will
The world is ever changing
But You are still the same;
Please order my steps, Lord I’ll praise Your name

Order my steps in Your Word
Order my tongue in Your Word
Guide my feet in Your Word
Wash my heart in Your Word
Show me how to walk in Your Word
Show me how to talk in Your Word
When I need a brand new song to sing
Show me how to let Your praises ring
In your Word (2x)

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

REPEAT CHORUS ( 2 X )

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

The Cause of My Joy

Patricia Ann Neal

“To love another person is to see the face of God” —  Jean Valjean, Les Misérables

“After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the greatest form of friendship” — St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, 123

“Marriage is ‘love of neighbor’ in its most extreme form, and so human love in its most challenging form. As such, marital love is the primary social foundation for any civilization that claims to be built on this commandment of Jesus” — Sr. Paula-Jean Miller in a lecture, Spring of 1994

Playful Providence

I love the Jewish-Christian idea of divine providence, which the Catechism #302 defines very simply this way:

We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward perfection.

Combining the Latin words pro, “ahead” and videre, “to see,” providence’s “divine foresight” reveals history to be not simply the subject of blind chance, but as under the guiding watch of fatherly love that, in spite of the looming cross, ever-envisages a more glorious resurrection. That said, Catholic theology affirms that genuinely random chance is part of creation, fully compatible with a divine providence that allows the “space” required for the radical variables of chance and human freedom. As theologian Thomas Davenport puts it:

God’s creative power is such that the very powers that allow a creature to act and to cause, even to cause contingently and by chance, depend at every moment on His sustaining power. Whatever happens in the world, whether it is a radioactive decay, a biological mutation, a decision to sin, or a decision to praise Him, does not catch God by surprise. In fact, He gives His creatures their existence and their natures that allow them to decay, to mutate, to sin, or to praise.

For me, such a view of history is far more thrilling to contemplate than either a predestining providence that controls all things like a puppet on a string or a providence-less universe wherein history blindly presses on without hope of a final resolve into beauty. The first makes for a monstrous view of God who enslaves creation and the second makes for an ultimately meaningless, purposeless view of history. The Jewish and Christian universe, however, is filled with all the tensions of drama and surprise, mystery and faith, terror and eager hope of a labor and delivery room.

And with play.

All of this came to mind because of remarkable coincidence that happened last week, which I will recount for you in brief. A little background. Twenty-three years ago my wife and I fell in love. I remember precisely the place and time. We were in St. Augustine, Florida on a mini-pilgrimage to the holy sites there, in particular the Nombre de Dios mission with its tiny Our Lady of La Leche Shrine dedicated to Mary nursing Jesus. As Patti and I walked toward the two-hundred and eight foot tall cross marking the location of the first Mass celebrated by the Spaniards in Florida in 1565, I remember vividly looking at her face for the very first time with romantic love. We had been simply friends before that for years. Later that evening, after dark, we decided to visit the Shrine chapel to pray. The gates were locked, so we jumped the fence and went into the chapel. The alarm went off! So we prayed very quickly, and I consecrated our still very secret love to God and our Lady, and then we sprinted off.

It’s a wonderful memory she and I love to revisit together, and over the years of our marriage we would return to that Shrine chapel many times to pray for the gift of a child or to grieve our miscarriages.

Back to last Friday. Patti had been gone all week at a conference and I was feeling especially lonely that day. During the morning while I was working, I texted a friend of ours in New Orleans to wish him a happy birthday. He knows nothing of our St. Augustine history or the “shrine alarm” story. He responded to my birthday text at once, “Tom, so kind. I’m here at this chapel. NOW in St. Augustine. Will say a prayer for you and the family.” I assumed he was referring to a parish in New Orleans called St. Augustine, until he texted me a moment later the picture I included at the top of this post. A photo of Our Lady of La Leche Shrine.

I was flabbergasted and audibly reacted in the coffee shop: “WHAT?!” Two elderly men across from me fell silent and stared. I said, “Sorry, just an amazing coincidence.” I immediately texted him back to share the significance of his text to me, and he replied, “What!!???!! Wow. Mass at noon. You both will be in our intentions. So crazy. Right!!!! Literally. [You texted my your birthday wish] the exact moment we walked into the chapel.”

What the heck? How? Why? I don’t claim to know. Coincidence inhabited by the Creator. As a person of faith it’s easy to see in such moments what I like to call God’s playful providence. Maybe its part of His passion — so evident in Scripture — for connecting events, revealing hidden patterns, painting wild masterpieces, telling crazy stories, writing seemingly-cacophonous symphonies, creating stunning beauty, disclosing a new order of existence under the form of surprise. Glimmers and sparks of a conspiracy toward Christ’s final resolve into beauty, what we Christians call the final judgment, the parousia, the consummation of history when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” On that Day, evil will be definitively judged, love will conquer all, every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new. The work God first began in the Virgin’s womb, nursing at her breast, will be brought to glorious completion in an eternal wedding feast.

Yes, right, a wedding feast that for us began in a Shrine as we ran.

How grateful I am that the Bridegroom chose last Friday to grant me a glimpse of His “divine disposition toward perfection” in my bride, and through the text of a dear and unsuspecting friend on his birthday.

Lead Thou me on.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Should lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life. — Bl. John Henry Newman

Good God and Bad Romance

[This is a post that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing in fits and starts over months and months. It’s long, as my posts go, but it’s time to let it go, it seems. St. Benedict, pray for us!]

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. — St. John Paul II

I was talking recently with a gentleman who is a marriage and family therapist about Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. We discussed at length the tendency among some wonderful catechetical initiatives in the U.S. to idealize the ‘wonders of sex’ in a Catholic marriage. Whether it’s the relationship-building power of Natural Family Planning (or ‘fertility awareness’ as I prefer to call it c/o Dr D. Cudihy) or the theo-erotically charged claims found in elements of the Theology of the Body movement (as opposed to St. John Paul’s actual teaching), there can be a “Gospel of Prosperity” feel to some of the promises made to Catholics, e.g. spiritually ecstatic supercharged sex that will leave you feeling more fulfilled in your marriage than any of those secular couples out there who don’t know what we know.

Really?

While it is unquestionably true that data shows couples who internalize a Catholic moral-theological vision of sex and marriage fare better overall in terms of things like marital stability and overall contentment with the goodness of the marriage relationship — along with other very positive effects — there is simply no magic equation between “doing it Catholic” and marital-sexual bliss. Just having right ideas in your head doesn’t mean your whole internal and external world suddenly approximates those ideas. Nor does doing the morally right thing mean it will automatically give rise to pleasure and happiness. The recognition and embracing of any truth is only the beginning of a long journey of integrating that truth into the complex realities of our thinking, feeling, behavior, relationships, commitments, etc. Now, in a culture that has made sexual pleasure into an end-in-itself, that idealizes orgasms as supremely life-fulfilling, or that markets (lucratively) sex with products and techniques that “guarantee” maximal sexual satisfaction without any negative consequences (or children), it can be tempting for evangelizers to mime the illusion and promise that faith offers the same results within its own moral-theological vision. “All that and more (without the bad stuff)!” But, anyone who has actually tried to live either the capitalist-hedonist illusion, or its Catholic mime, knows, if they’re honest, that sex in marriage yields very uneven results.

The simple truth of the matter is that sex is only part of the far more complex reality of marriage, of two different human beings who have chosen to join their very different selves into a shared experience of life. The choice to marry is itself extreme! Just think: a man and woman offering each other a total and exclusive self-gift of lifelong faithful love made for mutual benefit and for the good of those children they hope God will bless them with. So it is natural, it seems, to expect that sex would also in some way be an extreme experience of this enormous gift of love. However, the experience of sex involves and expresses the total real experience of real people in any given moment, itself hemmed in by innumerable limiting realities, i.e. health, psychological state, personal history, temperament, motives, location, time limits, ad infinitum.

Sex is the gift of the real self to a real other, not of the ideal self, and so requires all of the work and struggle and hard virtues that every other aspect of real married life requires to succeed. Sex sweeps up into itself everything else about us, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly. It does not acquire, by grace or by technique, a miraculous immunity from the larger contextual experience of who each spouse is. And like that larger life, sex is uneven and inconsistent and, in the Catholic vision, must always be about far more than merely personal or relational satisfaction. It’s about, among other things, love, justice, temperance, patience, new life, bonding, communication, reverence for the other, tenderness, trust, boundaries, the capacity to see life through the other’s eyes. It’s about a lot.

And sex, like the emotional life, serves as a loud and insistent primal cry from deep within to attend to other (often ignored) issues — things seemingly unrelated to sex — that require action if the marriage is to grow and flourish. Like emotional intelligence, sexual intelligence is very intuitive and bypasses the remarkable capacity of individuals or couples for rationalizing and self-delusion. While you can try to bypass sex’s insistent voice for a while, using psychological denial or alcohol or diversions or some such thing, eventually the truth your sex life was trying to tell you will surface elsewhere and demand your attention. Or your marriage.

Over the years, a number of men and women — Catholic and non-Catholic — have shared with Patti and me their trials and tribulations with sex in marriage. It is an honor to be allowed into that sacred space, and I tread with fear and trembling in terms of giving advice. Dear God, what can I say? I’m a theologian, not a therapist. Among these people, some struggle with a spouse insisting on using artificial contraception, some struggle with the challenges of using fertility awareness methods, some struggle with infertility, some struggle with each spouse’s very different approach to sex and physical intimacy, some struggle with finding time and space and energy in their very busy work-family lives for physical intimacy, some struggle with fear of another pregnancy (rational or irrational), some struggle with an inability to talk openly about sex with their spouse, some struggle with feeling sexually starved, some struggle with feeling sexually used, some struggle with being sexually apathetic, some struggle with feeling tempted to infidelity, some struggle with impotence or health issues that make sex difficult or impossible, some struggle with being pressured to have sex because it’s ovulation-time (or because it’s not ovulation time), some struggle with the too-fast move from affection to intercourse. I could go on.

Of course, every single honest couple would readily admit their own struggles, their uneven experience of sex, regardless of how prayerful or orthodox or open to life or holy they are. Sex is a participation in the larger reality of marriage’s self-giving, life-giving, grace-giving, co-laboring love — with an emphasis placed on the “part” of participation. Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.

My point is that sexuality in marriage is a fully human experience on every level, and when you marry someone, you marry a fully human, baggage-laden human. Sex is a struggle because life and love are a struggle. Marriage, for Catholics, is a Sacrament which is full of graces meant to aid the couple in allowing their unique experience of full-humanity to become redemptive and sanctifying. Grace builds on nature, heals and elevates nature from within. But, as God’s common practice goes, He does not ordinarily remove our struggles from us. Rather, He saturates our struggles in grace so that the struggle itself becomes no longer enemy, but friend. It becomes the primary means of being redeemed, and of growth in virtues like humility, trust, respect, tenderness, patience, fortitude, temperance and sacrificial love. As the Council of Trent put it, God leaves behind our yucky weaknesses (concupiscence) after Baptism “for the sake of the battle” (cf 2 Cor 12:9). In this case, God invites the couple to fight together to conquer sin, secure the lovely victory of love, and become saints together. St. Paul aptly describes saint-making marriage in Ephesians 5 as a Garden of the Cross, God’s privileged New Eden in which He chooses to (re)plant His sacrificial love in creation. Hence, God has planted the Cross in the middle of sex, making its greatest joy the struggle to love your spouse in body, mind and spirit.

The real joy of Catholic sex is getting a taste of the divine ecstasy of infinitely selfless, faithful, total, life-giving and sacrificial love that became incarnate and fumbled about with us. And that joy, when embraced within the whole of our reality — including God’s amazing grace — is deep, abiding and ecstatic. Ecstatic, I say, as it comes from the Greek contraction ek-statis, “standing outside yourself.” Sexual ecstasy in marriage is about making love. Not the cheap version used to describe an orgasm’s passing oxytocin rush, but really making love. Ecstatic love calls you outside yourself deeper into that one-flesh union you pledged in the beginning. Because in the final analysis, true joy is the fruit of being all about the other, about being into their joy.

“…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

This was certainly the rationale St. John Paul II used when he made this point:

Since in marriage a man and a woman are associated sexually as well as in other respects the good must be sought in this area too. From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved. This is implicit in the principle which we have already so thoroughly analysed, and which excludes exploitation of the person, and insists on love. In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.

Let me say to bring an end to this overly long and rambling reflection, all married people should have some trusted person (or couple) in your life with whom they can share their struggles. Whether as an individual or as a couple. Don’t keep your trails shrouded in secrecy. Wise friends, confidants and couples have brought me immense strength these years!

One husband once said to me as we talked about his struggles in marital intimacy, “It just shouldn’t be this much work.” I said, “Really? Are you kidding? Yes it should. Sex for us Catholics is about love, and love is damn hard work. If you think it’s just a cheap thrill, an easy fix, a quick path to happiness with her, you’ll be permanently frustrated. This isn’t Disney, it’s reality. So get to work…”

But if I had memorized the words of Pope Benedict, I would have said this instead:

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

Prune us, Lord, that Patti and I might, by our Yes, in sex and in life, become fruitful branches on the vine.

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

Aim for the chopping block

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Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block. — Annie Dillard

When I was in Arizona during the summer of 1989, a priest gave a homily at a daily Mass I attended that was just mind-altering. Daily Mass homilies are not usually known for that. I wrote it up later in my journal, with a slew of personal comments added. Here’s the part that caught me (edited to improve my grammar):

Human beings are meaning-makers, and what is unique about our quest for meaning is it’s largely future-oriented. We universally seek ends, goals. And all of us seek, whether we are aware or not, a final end, an overarching ultimate goal beyond the proximate pragmatism of the useful. In Christianity, we name this goal, the very substance of our faith, as ‘love.’ And Christians say that the premier sign we have laid hold of love as our ultimate goal is hope. Belief in love yields hope. This love, for a disciple of Christ, is first of all the love of God; for he loved us first. Then it is the double-sided coin of love for God and love for neighbor. This means love for God is not competitive but inclusive of every other genuine love, because God is the source of all good things and so in loving them we love their Origin. Our end is not God alone, but God and neighbor. Together these constitute our ultimate end, Jesus Christ.

A single mother I know holds two jobs to support her children. She gets up every day at 3:30 a.m. so she can be home in time for the children returning from school at 3:30 p.m. She gets exhausted, discouraged, feels lonely, frustrated. But, she says, because of her faith in God and her love for her children, she never regrets a single moment of her sacrifices. They are all enfolded in her single ultimate end. She knows God wants her to provide the best for her children, she trusts God provides and supplies for her lack. When she prays, she says, everything returns into focus and she is able to press on. Yes without these twin goals — what Jesus calls the greatest of the commandments — she would lose all meaning and hope in her life of hardship. Her sacrifices would lose their motive force and discouragement would overwhelm her.

In philosophy, they say that among the ways of causing things to happen, the ‘final cause’ — which is the final purposeful goal toward which something tends if it is to achieve fulfillment — in a sense pulls us toward itself with a powerful force awakened within us: desire. That woman’s children ‘pulled’ from her the resolve to renounce sleep and ease for their benefit. Every day, as you begin in prayer, reconnect your desires with their proper ends. All for Jesus, all for God and man in love. Remember as you pray why as a person of faith you do what you do, in the ultimate sense. Again and again do this, and it will get internalized by repetition rolling in grace. And ask God to fill all your thoughts, words and deeds with the love which knows no end, so that all things in your life might be consecrated to the God who is love. Then you will be a convincing witness to others that love alone gives lasting meaning, brings hope and makes all things new.

So today, right now, what is your ultimate goal that drives you on? What is your life’s motive force? If any of us are truly honest we will say: a mixed bag. Pleasure, approval, guilt, obligation, fear, money can displace love. In themselves, they are not necessarily bad. But when made ultimate they are dangerous, terribly fragile. Idols. The goal of the spiritual life, and the power of prayer and Sacrament, is to purify our motive desires and refine our goals so that more and more they become that of love. Love for God that is wrapped in love for our fellow human being and the good creation he has given us for our joy and his glory. Let us this day make our intention to do all things for love’s sake. For God’s sake. Amen.

That homily exposed in me for the first time an awareness of what drove me inside, and how far I had to travel before love would become my final cause.

When I first heard the song Light by the group, Sleeping At Last, I thought of that single mother singing to her child. This is the fodder of greatness for those who spend their lives on others in selfless love and see light — or bring light — where others might only see darkness. Lyrics below.

[Verse 1]
May these words be the first to find your ears
The world is brighter than the sun now that you’re here
Though your eyes will need some time to adjust
To the overwhelming light surrounding us

[Chorus]
I’ll give you everything I have
I’ll teach you everything I know
I promise I’ll do better
I will always hold you close
But I will learn to let you go
I promise I’ll do better
I will soften every edge
I’ll hold the world to its best
And I’ll do better
With every heartbeat I have left
I will defend your every breath
And I’ll do better

[Bridge]
Cause you are loved
You are loved more than you know
I hereby pledge all of my days
To prove it so
Though your heart is far too young to realize
The unimaginable light you hold inside

[Chorus]
I’ll give you everything I have
I’ll teach you everything I know
I promise I’ll do better
I will always hold you close
But I will learn to let you go
I promise I’ll do better
I will rearrange the stars
Pull ’em down to where you are
I promise I’ll do better
With every heartbeat I have left
I’ll defend your every breath
I promise I’ll do better
I will soften ever edge
Hold the world to its best
I promise I’ll do better
With every heartbeat I have left
I’ll defend your every breath
I’ll do better