“He’s whole.” The story of Ernie Johnson

Everything I try to express in this Blog is in one way or another narrated in this extraordinary 23 minute ESPN story.



The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

You fill my heart with your absence

Who are you, that you fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the world with your absence? — Pär Lagerkvist

I was speaking with a woman who shared with me her marital struggles, and she said something that captured powerfully a truth:

I feel [my husband and I] have forgotten why we married. Work, children, our own lives intervened and we lost sight of what made us choose each other. My fear is that one of us will find that answer somewhere else.

When I asked her what made her aware of their crisis, she said, “When he came home after a week away, and I realized I never even missed him. That feeling of emptiness frightened me.”

In a relationship of love, absence evokes longing. In the death of love, absence is apathy. This is what the spiritual tradition calls acedia, a listless loss of desire for the good, a loss of resolve to keep promises, as loss of will to struggle for love.

Love is free in its offer, but costly in its reception. Love requires sleepless attentiveness, labor, sacrifice, cultivation, planning, guarding, defending. Yes, there are times we can (and must) rest in the beauty, joy and pleasure of love, but only after six days of work have nurtured those fruits.

If we take for granted the love God has given us, that love granted us “will be taken away and given to a people that produces the fruits” (Matt. 21:43).

Love is not ours to take, squander and cast away. Love is a gift that belongs properly to God alone, for God is love. He entrusts it to us afresh each day, as first in the beginning in the Garden, to see if this time we might — only with His grace — cultivate the life-giving fruits of enduring love that last on into eternity.

Or not.

At the end of my conversation with that woman, I said, “You know that empty feeling you had when your husband came home? I believe that was a gift from God. The gift of emptiness that, more like a stomach than a glass, reminds you you are starving. Even when the feast is right in front of you. Choose the feast…”

Dream On, Holy Family!

Holy Family with Saint Anne – El Greco. pictorem.com

When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching — they are your family.   ― Jim Butcher

Holy Family. What a majestic, mundane and messy feast. Patti and I were talking this morning about the Holy Family iconography that edges toward idyllic, and how we would love one with Mary yelling at Joseph or Joseph spanking Jesus. Really, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

I don’t have anything theologically substantial in mind, so will share a story that came to me while Patti and I were talking.

I know a family in an unnamed location, married two dozen or so years, with several children in a fairly small house. They represent many of the family “goals” Patti and I aspire to in a wonderfully real way. Their kids are wildly different, with lots of talent, and some have really tough problems. The couple’s marriage has been a perpetual firestorm, marked by stories both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The wife likes to joke, “When we got married, I didn’t realize he was gasoline and he didn’t realize I was a match!”

Here’s what I consider their genius. The parents wrote up a family mission years ago — get this: “We will love each other extremely, every day and forever through thick and thin, and send our children out with the best we have to better the world.” And that mission shapes them every day. Their house is always filled with activity and new faces, antiphonal yelling and laughter, arguments and forgiveness, tight embraces and flying dishes, music and more laughter. They ban all technology from bedrooms or family activities.

The parents don’t feel compelled to craft a perfect public picture of their life, but they always celebrate their kids’ achievements, don’t fret over their failures and problems, and never throw their kids under the bus when they talk about the family tough stuff with outsiders. They’re faithful Catholics but not pious, they pray before every meal and at bed, are activists more than contemplatives, and their house is messy without apology.

All of this I find rare in a package.

But my favorite thing about them is summed up well in something the dad shared with me last year. He said something like, “The most important part of family to me is giving everybody a safe place to dream about their future. To be hopeful no matter what. To think big about what God wants. If you’ve got that, you’ve got enough to do the rest.” He said his own experience of childhood, which was very repressed, joyless and oppressively controlled, made him promise himself he would never pass that on to his kids. When he told me this, he said, “You know, I want our family like that Aerosmith song” — and then he sang, “…dream on, dream on, dream until your dream comes true…”

Like this family…

If you love somebody, if you love someone…


Just for today, I will not try to improve or regulate someone else. — Al-Anon’s Just for Today bookmark

Shortly after I got married, a friend who had been married for years said to me, with a wry smile,

The trouble with marriage is women hope it’s going to change their husband, while men hope it won’t change their wife—and both are disappointed!

After we laughed, he said, “The key to marital success is, first love each other as is, warts and all. Then each work to change yourself to be better for the other. Only then can real influence begin.”

The human compulsion to control others’ lives, for better or for worse, wreaks havoc when it’s not informed by freedom-honoring love. Love does not coerce or manipulate others — through shame, guilt, deception or fear — to become what we want them to be or think they should be. Love proposes, never imposes. The “otherness” of others can be all-at-once painful to accept and a joie de vivre. Live in the tension.

A friend’s parenting advice to my wife and me, written in a letter after our second son’s birth, resounded with this tension,

…Don’t coddle them. Don’t smother them. Don’t over water them. Love them. Make them work. Be there for them. Let them succeed. Let them fail. Help them up if they ask. Impart your wisdom when they’re ready, not before. Let them earn the right to hear it. Natural consequences of decisions are far better teachers than your manufactured ones. Don’t make them like you. Make them like themselves. Don’t tell them what to do, help them know how to know what to do. Help them discover their own God-given path. Pray for them…

One thing is very clear from looking at the universe God designed: God loves extreme variety. Really extreme. Just one example I love: there are about 17,500 species of butterflies and 160,000 species of moths in the world. Crazy! The differences between each person are vast and super-abound. Our unique fingerprint is our glory. Diverse physical features, races, ethnicities, cultures, personalities, intellectual bents, political persuasions, religious sensibilities, musical tastes, senses of humor, likes and dislikes, gifts, talents, strengths, weaknesses, abilities, disabilities, virtues, vices, and on and on and on. Some differences complement and click, while others clash and collide.

Goodness is kaleidoscopic, evil is monolithic, while mercy turns even evil’s flattening sameness into a new palette dappled with infinitely varied colors. ☦ Think of the many types of sinners-to-saints.

Love alone, wed to catholic truth, binds irreducible multiplicity into a universe, purifying and leading all to perfect unity (Col. 3:14’s teleiotētos!). Love alone makes the wild (and oft painful) tensions of difference, wildly creative.

Hardest of all, though, is the love that allows people in our lives the freedom to rebel, to reject, to run away from us; from what we stand for; from truth; from God. The love that forgives, that seeks forgiveness. In the prodigal son story, the father did not guilt or shame or condemn the selfish son at his departure or upon his return. He patiently waited, he quietly suffered, he secretly pardoned, he loved him from within the distance, even as the father stood his ground and hoped that the memory of a home and heart full of love would one day draw his son back. And when the son returned, while the elder brother gripped tight to his manipulative and self-righteous rage, the father ran and embraced, celebrated and danced.

It’s truly the parable of the Cross and Resurrection, of prodigal love. And of its opposite.

Recently when I was vehemently trying to ‘protect’ one of my daughters from what I saw as a potentially bad situation, she said, “Dad, let go.” I said, “No!” And we burst out laughing.

O Lord, help me, just for today, not to try to improve or regulate someone else. Just to love them, simply love them, merely love them, love them, love…

The Christmas Maria came home!


Merry Christmas, all!

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

My sister Maria died at 3 days old on this day back in 1965, and our daughter Maria was released from NICU at 3 days old on Christmas day in 1999.

When our daughter was born not breathing, crying or moving, it was the most helpless feeling I have had in my life, without exception. My wife was not aware of what was happening, and it seemed in that moment as if every concern I had in life faded into absolute insignificance.

As we had been praying to my sister for her intercession that day, I wondered if our Maria would join her. I begged not. Later, after watching Maria be resuscitated, I thought of my own mother and father’s grief. I thought of my sister’s tombstone, and of my mother’s annual placement of flowers in front of the statue of the Holy Family in our home parish on December 22.

I never understood what this mingling of the joy of birth and the grief of death meant growing up, but now I had an inkling. Only an inkling. But when Patti suffered each of her six miscarriages, I understood far better the pain of a mother at the loss of her child. Though I experienced sorrow and grief, hers was different in kind, as it was her body that was broken.

The Christmas Maria came home was the greatest joy of all, and the love found in the breakfast casserole that our friend, Heather Jordan brought to our home to welcome us all back was the most sacred of feasts.

I realized this year on December 22, as I prayed in the morning for Maria, that every time I see and hear her sing, it has a transcendent meaning for me. Her song breaks those terrible moments silence. I will never take her voice for granted.

After Patti’s first miscarriage, I began a practice of singing the Sanctus at Mass in a very intentional way, joining my voice with the voices of our miscarried children in Paradise who now wait for us in the house of our dancing Father.

…Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

The misery and majesty of Christmas


For many people, Christmas is a strange blend of pain and joy. It so often serves to spotlight difficult family issues, like loss, estrangement, grudges, hurt feelings, division, loneliness, financial distress, even as it can also shine into dark spaces a new and hopeful light.

But somehow, it seems to me, this gets at exactly what the Nativity of a Redeemer God is all about. Just think, Jesus was greeted at His conception with accusations of infidelity against His mother and the threat of divorce; was born far away from home, amid anxiety, fear, uncertainty and threats of violence; was welcomed by strangers and foreigners; was gifted with burial oils and then forced at once to flee into Egypt in the face of Herod’s massacre of innocent children.

The takeaway? God brings joy into our mess! This is indeed good news of great joy. But even more, His coming seems to agitate evil, to stir up trouble and exacerbate dysfunction, bringing what we’d rather hide away to the surface. The Redeemer isn’t interested in overlooking, incarcerating or covering up evil, but rather in overcoming it by exposing our festering wounds to the healing rays of His merciful gaze.

With such a vision, people of faith see in such challenges a precious opportunity to invite Jesus to be born again deep within our smelly stables. No matter where you find yourself, or how intractable the problem, remember to invite Him in and set Him loose. “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,” and this brother longs to be born into our miserable and majestic families.

But only if He is welcomed.

Maranâ thâ! Come, Lord Jesus! You are welcome. Amen.