A Typical Day in the Life of…

Happy Ordinary Time!

It’s been, and continues to be, a very busy stretch. Amid the press of various work commitments, I drew in some fresh Spring air at our daughter Maria’s (and Ashley’s) High School graduation on Monday! Above is photo of the Neal Family, afterwards. Tears, smiles, joy, sorrow, but mostly overflowing gratitude.

The next day after graduation, Maria edited a new (and really fun) genre Mashley video. Since this Blog really serves as a cover for promoting my family, I will slip her video in here. I am hoping to resume the ruse this weekend and put some new theological posts out.

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.” — St. Maximus the Confessor

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. in their hospice, one of the AIDS patients we served once said to one of the Sisters, “Where do you people come from?”

She had been overwhelmed by the new “economy” she experienced at Gift of Peace, which, in her words, “spit in the face of the law of the street — ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.” She said, “All my life, anytime anyone did anything nice for me, they always wanted something back. You didn’t give unless you wanted to take. This is the first place I’ve been where they do something nice, but don’t want something back.”

She was especially amazed that the Sisters and volunteers were able to ignore her initial expressions of bitter ingratitude and anger, and continue to care for her with kindness and patience.

After I heard her observation, I meditated on just how radical the implications of what she said were if that “economy” was lived out in every detail of Christian life. What a strange form of justice would emerge! To this effect, Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-36 are indeed mind-bending:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It seems, then, that Jesus touts mercy as the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mercy, which is love encountering evil, brokenness, sin, death, and overcoming it.

Where might we even start implementing such an impossible demand? Well, by actively letting go of the need to be thanked, acknowledged or praised for the good we do. By working on refining our intention — the why of your action — from “what’s in it for me, on my terms” to “what is for God’s greater glory,” while trusting in the supremacy of God’s manner, in the End, of rewarding good and dealing with evil.

Sounds lofty and glorious in speech, but translating it into everyday actions is an entirely different experience. Brutally hard, as the present economy is infected by the logic of sin.

In service to purifying their intention, St. John of the Cross counseled his fellow Religious to frequently seek out opportunities to do kindnesses to those notorious for ingratitude. Why? Yes, to help purify their intention, shifting the center of gravity from the needy ego to the God-neighbor.

But also it was to imitate God in offering the unworthy and ungrateful an opportunity to discover in us a new way of being human, pattered after God’s economy of salvation. In other words, by imitating God in this way, we offer others the invitation to be saved.

By looking at us, they can say: “Oh, that’s why I would want to be saved! To be like him, like her!”

Or, even better, maybe I could say that by choosing to do good to those who cannot, or will not do good to us in return, we allow ourselves to be saved by the merciful Father.

And being saved means being made capable of loving as God loves, with God’s love, plain and simple.

While we will always find reasonable reasons for not acting in such a way to this or that nasty, ungrateful person, faith challenges us to risk each day a new way of seeing the world, a new way of acting toward others that makes mercy the new normal. The cognitive dissonance this risk  causes should remind us that mercy is indeed as odd a form of justice as a crucified God is an odd manner of wielding divine omnipotence.

The woman at Gift of Peace ended up being baptized. Why? She said, “if your Jesus is anything like these women, I want to know Him.”

Yeah, that.

A Sacrament of sex

huffpost.com

[originally posted in 2016]

Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. – Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia

I’d like to share today a song by the group, Penny and Sparrow. The song, Duet, is sung by lead singer Andy Baxter and a guest artist named Hannah Huston. Our friend, Austin Ashcraft, introduced it to Patti and me last winter and we both loved it.

The song brings into close proximity sexual intimacy and the daily “labor of love” in marital and family. The song brilliantly reveals how these two seemingly contrasting aspects of marriage actually intensify one another. I’ll share below what I wrote later that night in my journal after he shared the song with us.

+++

I believe the most creative tension in marriage is found between erotic-possessive love (I want you) and self-sacrificing love (I am for you). Marriage is a dance between desire and choice, possessing and giving, taking in and pouring out, eros and agape. I burn with passion for my wife and I am beckoned by love to daily die for her.

Two flames, one love.

Erotic sex was created by God to be the servant of marital fidelity, the welding fire that solidifies our lifelong bond. Every sexual act is a marital act, a consummating sign and seal of everything, all-for-you, forever. Which is why every sexual act apart from marriage is a lie, an act of theft, as you give to and take from another the totality you have not yet pledged.

When I married Patti, after God there is no love in all of creation that lays claim on me as does my covenant promise to love her — “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). She is the treasure buried by God in the field of Tallahassee, for which I sold all my possessions to obtain. Beginning with the divine command to “abandon mother and father” and cling to Patti (Gen. 2:24), all other loves in this life, including love for our children, are to be ordered in service to our marital bond.

As more years pass, I can see the deepening significance of sexual intimacy as a sacrament of our God-entwined “everything, all-for-you, forever.” In the context of an enduring covenant, sex is meant to be a graced sign of mutual trust, vulnerability, surrender, gift, unity, an exchange of hearts. “The two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). “Will become” is key, as it’s a progressive journey of one-ing, one had through battles and struggles, embraces and reconciliations, labor and rest, joys and sorrows.

Inscribed by our now 30-year history of friendship, each sexual act entails a love story, enfleshes a mutual knowledge that can never be adequately captured by words. Only by words-made-flesh, as we come to finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s needs, read each other’s faces, forgive each other’s sins before they are committed. My wife knows me more than any other human being — a terror and thrill all at once!

“Adam knew Eve, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). How much more that means now.

Lastly, if this inextricable link between sex and the real day-to-day struggles of covenant love is true, it also means any fantasy that marital sex will be consistently amazing, easy and ecstatic all the time, on demand, must be abandoned. The real sex, grounded in real life and love, is the sex that not only satisfies, but also sanctifies. Is the sex that is sacramental, to the very end.

Duet:

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 ’em 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

“How are you?”

Orthodox priest hearing Confession. timg.com

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you. — Fr. Henri Nouwen

[re-post 2016]

In the last week or so, I have come across so much pain and struggle in others’ lives. As I reflected on this during my prayer time last evening, I was overcome by a sense of gratitude for the people who entrusted to me their stories of hardship, doubt, fear, pain. And I felt similar gratitude for all those who listen to me. There is such an extraordinary intimacy that develops when someone allows you into their suffering. Such a vulnerability.

I am completely convinced of what a priest therapist friend of mine once said to me:

If you want to know what someone is struggling with, all you have to do is say, ‘How are you?’, mean it, patiently listen, and then the flood gates will fling wide open. If you scratch even a little beneath the surface by lending an ear, you’ll know Thoreau was exactly right when he said, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’

He also said to me,

The real crisis in mental health, in my opinion, is the disappearance of a culture that supports the time and patience required for therapeutic listening. Being heard is very healing. People are so distracted by technology, and have such short attention spans that they don’t make time to just be with someone to listen and talk.

I think the Christian revolution nowadays could simply be taking time to listen to someone, every day. Really listen. You don’t need a degree in psychotherapy to help someone work out their issues. Common sense advice, confidentiality, patient caring. And pray with them. Just an Our Father or Hail Mary. Nothing elaborate.

I’d say well over half the people who come to me for help just needed me to listen with love and attention. No one else will.

Especially parents need to listen to their children, let them talk it out — whatever ‘it’ is. Listening to your child often, especially at night, develops deep bonds of trust that will pay large dividends later in life. The same is true for spouses.

The church should be a community where we learn and practice listening to God and each other. The world should say of us, “See how they listen to one another!”

I believe God’s a helluva good listener and loves to be listened to, if the Bible is any indication. So we’re made in His image, so it all makes sense.

I tell couples or parents, pull out the earbuds, put down the phone, turn off the computer or TV and just talk. Walk and talk, it’s a great combo.

God wants to heal us, but only through others. Like Augustine’s description of heaven as “one Christ loving himself,” we live heaven now when we let Jesus love others through us and let Jesus love us through others. God is tricky — everything he does is intended to bring us together.

Next time you ask someone, “How are you?”, and mean it, get ready to meet Jesus.

Based on the prayer, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

True greatness

“You received without payment; give without payment.” — Matthew 10:8

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” — Mother Teresa

As a meditation on yesterday’s theme of inspiration and encouragement, I wanted to share this video which I originally included in yesterday’s re-post back when it first appeared in 2017.

This is true greatness, loving the world into the new creation one intentional act of kindness at a time.

Mr. Wallace

Mr. Wallace, me. picdn.net

[Re-post from 2017]

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

People who have inspired me in life, as I reflect, all have one characteristic that really stands out: they are encouraging. Meaning, they fill you with courage to be who you were made to be.

When you’re with such people, it’s like you are drawn out of yourself as their interest in you, and what you have to offer, has such power. I find that such people are rare. The world doesn’t fold back in on them, but theirs unfolds out toward you. It’s what you might call magnanimity, “great-souledness.”

As my grandfather loved to say, great men, when you meet them, are those who leave you thinking, not that they are great, but that you are. When you walk away from them, you feel lifted, kindled, determined, resolved to press on, come what may, to employ every ounce of your energy and gifts, never ceasing to dream of a future full of hope — even when the space around you is narrow, or the skies above you are grey and low.

Mr. Wallace, my 7th-9th grade tutor, was such a man. I had flunked all of my 7th grade classes and had to transfer to another school and repeat the grade. Dispirited, despondent, depressed, despairing, humiliated. That was me. We would meet several times a week to review my subjects, especially math and English. His attentiveness, patience, and pedagogical skill all lifted me out of my academic confusion, and gave me confidence to ask questions, to learn.

But more than anything, it was the question he would ask me at the end of every session, “How are you doing?”, that broke open my thick shell. Nuclear, really. At first I remained on the surface with my responses, but eventually I trusted he was serious and began to talk. About anything. And he would listen, nod, wonder, laugh and respond specifically to whatever I said. In other words, I knew he was interested in me and saw in me something I didn’t. In the truest sense he was an educator, ex-ducere, he “drew me out.”

At our last meeting, after three years with him, we talked the whole time about my future. He wanted to know which language I would study, how I would handle a new school, what career I hoped to pursue. He asked me what the most important things were that I had learned with him. I said, “confidence.”

I was very emotional saying goodbye to him, but carried with me in the years ahead the image of his kind face and the sound of his voice. His last words to me are especially vivid. He knew I loved the band Aerosmith, and so for that last session brought in a cassette player and played, “Dream On.” He said, “never stop dreaming. Your future depends on dreams.”

Back in 2010, 28 years later, I searched for and found him. I wrote him a thank you email, and he wrote back, “Tom, I am appreciative for your kindness in making the effort to tell me this. I vaguely remember you. I’m old now. I am happy for your successes and am glad to know I played a small part. Those are the things make the hard times along the way worthwhile.”

Each of us is called, gifted and sent by God to someone. Sent to inspire, encourage, lift up, lend a hand. Awaken a dream. It’s what makes life beautiful.

Willingly or Unwillingly

picdn.net

“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer

Last December, my father and I were speaking on the phone just after Christmas. His dementia was evident as he asked me the same questions over and over and put out a few non sequitur comments. But between those, his mind was still keen.

I remember he said to me, with an almost prophetic force, “Remember, son, that there are two approaches to life. Learn humility now, willingly, or learn it at the end, unwillingly. As you know, I’ve never been a big fan, so…” We laughed.

In only a matter of weeks from that conversation, his dementia accelerated and he began his very hard and humiliating journey of decline toward death.

When I saw him during his last days, he was barely able to speak. This larger than life man was tiny. My sister, step mother, whomever else, just sat with him, speaking, praying, touching. Occasionally he would respond to something. A wink. A subtle smile. A sentence fragment. A moan. A scream. A prayer.

I will refrain from too much detail here

Every move, each sound, movement or look of the eyes was rife with depth. The gravity of our circumstances filled all of the air we breathed in and out, thickening the air while thinning out the distance between us into a terrifying intimacy. No distractions left.

Time passed in an almost otherworldly way, each moment that passed felt like a death, a progressive and irretrievable loss.

Sorry, not sure how to say this.

There was one moment, though, really remarkable, when we were sitting together in the dining area at a table. Dad in his wheelchair, me in my chair. I was alone with him at the table, which was sacred. Almost frightening. I said, “Hey Dad, it’s Tommy.” He looked up with his intensely blue eyes, smiled with such tenderness, and said in his weak breathy voice, “It’s all on loan to us, kid. On loan. On loan. Lo…”

I was numb. I didn’t know how to react. Cry? Affirm? Think? All I could muster was, “It is.”

The word “steward” washed over me. I so blithely invoke that word, extol it. We are not owners of, but stewards entrusted with everything and anything. None of it is mine, an absolute possession. All of it has been given to me. My life, my existence, my family, my work, my father.

My father’s life was slowly evaporating away. Literally. He slowly, second to second, handed everything back. Willingly? Unwillingly? Only he, and the Giver-Receiver, knew now.

As we sat there at the table, I thought of his December words, “Remember, son, that there are two approaches to life. Learn humility now, willingly, or learn it at the end, unwillingly.” I wrote later in my journal, “These words about ‘on loan,’ spoken now from his wheelchair, are simply rephrasing the others. Humility means this, we know none of it belongs to us. All is grace, to be given back to the Giver by being given away willingly, as love. The judgment of what Dad gives back will be measured thus. With that smile.”

That’s all.