Keep making beauty

A seminarian who loves Kurt Vonnegut shared this letter with me from the fantastic collection, edited by Shaun Usher, called More Letters of Note. I highly recommend it!

I absolutely love what Vonnegut has to say and the playful way he says it. As GK Chesterton says, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Yes. Never once have I engaged in any art form — as a creator or a receiver — and not come away enriched. But what struck me most was Vonnegut’s last paragraph.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a literature professor and a (degreed) philosopher shared with me a fascinating insight into art. He said something like this (as I jotted in in my journal later),

Great artists are careful not to do all of their art for public consumption, so that their creativity is not unduly determined by external motives, e.g. trends, accolades, money. They do some of their art for charity, some anonymously, some for the unlettered, some for beauty’s sake, some for God alone. Think of how many saints burned their work! We see that as a great loss to us, and it is! But they saw it as a needful act of detachment, of humility, as an oblative acknowledgement that none of it was theirs to begin with. Beauty resists being possessed by utility, so her truest prophets must always be willing to surrender to her will and not bend her to their own. Often that can mean sharing art with others for their benefit, but there must be moments when the artist is equally happy to create Beauty in secret and offer her back to her Origin. Like those art forms of the spiritual life, prayer, alms and fasting [Matthew chapter 6!].

Last week I was going to bed early and I heard my daughter in the other room playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. She did not know I was listening and no one else was around. I had not slept well in weeks. As she played it, tears rolled down my face and I was transported into sleep. I woke the next morning with my alarm without waking up once during the night. It was a gift beyond telling. I wrote her a note that afternoon, “Thank you for giving beauty to your dad last night from the piano. I heard it, unbeknownst to you, and God heard it as a prayer for your dad. Keep making beauty. ❤ Love you.”

Marriage, Sacrament of Divine Friendship

Us

Today is our wedding anniversary. At 11:00 a.m., October 14, 1995 our Nuptial Mass began with us singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” alone before God, face to face. I remember her radiantly joyful face! Oh, and I think there were other people in the church that day as well. And as we finished praying together this morning in thanksgiving for our marriage and children, we looked out our hotel window and saw this on the beach below:

Since I have not had time to write this week, I thought I would edit and post something I wrote last year but never posted. I hope it benefits someone.

[St. Thomas Aquinas says that] after the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship.” This unique friendship between a man and a woman acquires an all-encompassing character only within the conjugal union. — Pope Francis

Augustine finds a way to make the “self-donation” of the spouses a function not primarily of natural inclination, but of the long, hard, purifying pedagogy in the loving humility of Christ which begets the only true joys. — John Cavadini

There was a man I know who was having trouble in his marriage, and he asked me recently if I would have lunch with him to speak about his situation. He is a man of deep faith with whom I have enjoyed many wonderful faith-filled conversations. He later gave me permission to share his insights anonymously.

He and his wife, who have several children, have grown distant over thirteen years of marriage. At the time I spoke with him, he said they lived in a state of “total war.” They fought all the time, mostly about parenting issues. “But,” he said, “it’s not the children that really are the issue. It’s that we just don’t like each other any more. We stopped having sex two years ago and can’t even talk about it.” As we talked about why that was the case, he said, “Look, we used to be best friends. There was no one I wanted to be with more than her, and I know she felt the same. Early on, everything came so naturally to us. But then life happened, kids came, my constant job changes, her parents’ resentment of my taking their daughter and grandkids away. It’s the hardest thing imaginable to live with someone you feel you don’t even know anymore. I feel like she hates me.”

Then he cried.

Life had gradually distracted them from each other and, as he said it, “practical things, busyness, children, work all robbed us of the time we used to take to keep each other the main focus.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Let me be more honest, Tom, and say we let them rob our time away. At least I did. You could say I thought we had plenty of gas in the tank to make the trip without refueling. The biggest mistake I made was to coast, take ‘us’ for granted. It’s so easy to do, and it seems lots of folks seem to just make it work. But we are just to intense for that to work. I just thought everything would always be the same between us and then everything else just got in the way.”

As we talked further, we talked about how they didn’t really consider how their marital promises had transformed their friendship into something radically new, transitioning from a private into a public reality — a covenant — opening the intimacy and exclusivity of their love to all the others who were now part of their covenant love,  i.e. extended family, children, work, church, society. All of these would now depend on and benefit from the beauty and strength of their faith, love and friendship. Yes, the two become one flesh, but that covenant drag a whole lot of other ‘flesh’ in with them!

This demanded of both of them something greater, stronger, more selfless, more open than they had been accustomed to before their marriage. Before, it was really just the two of them. I said, “On your wedding day, it’s like God placed in your joined hands a seed that would germinate and grow into a larger and larger family tree. Think of all the people who have come into your life! People who have come between you and strained your joined hands. To keep your hands joined as that tree grows and not let its increasing weight break them apart, takes mighty work; mighty love; mighty prayer; mighty grace; mighty support. Your love for each other needs to become more fierce and focused and intentional. It’s not too late.”

We talked about marriage as a Sacrament of God’s love. I said to him something like this (very summarized and formalized here),

Marriage reflects that way that the eternal, exclusive, pure love between Father and Son opened itself up to include the whole human race in that love when God became man. Think of what this opening up, this ‘going public’ demanded of God! You can think of the way Jesus speaks of and prays to the Father as a model for how you deepen and manifest your love for your spouse to all who come between you. The Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father extended itself to the bloody mess of humanity for us; so we might share in the unfathomable beauty of that immortal friendship of Father and Son. That opening up took the form of the Cross, which perfected the love between Father and Son (Mark 14:36; John 10:17; Heb. 2:10, 5:8) even as it intensified the love of Father and Son for humanity who had been invited to come between Them (John 3:16, 17:1-26).

You need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach you both the meaning of marriage again. Let Him in, together. He’s the author and perfector of marriage, He’s the bond of love between Father and Son, between the Son and humanity. In a real sense, He is marriage. He dreamed and created marriage and He wants to share with you both all He has to offer. Wisdom, grace, love, healing. Your marriage is a Sacrament of His love, so you have to let Him do His thing.

We sat for a few minutes in silence after this, and then he said, “Let’s pray.” We prayed, discussed a marriage counselor I recommended and got up to leave. He said, “We can do this. I know we can.”

The next week, I went to Confession. The words this older priest shared with me I at once emailed to that man. The priest said,

Remember, son, there is no one else on earth God commands you to love with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Of course he wants you to love your children and your parents and others in your life, but your wife alone deserves everything. Only God Himself requires such an absolute commitment. It’s really remarkable and sobering. She gets first dibs, first consideration, the best attention. She needs to know you better than anyone else and you need to know her better than anyone else. If you want to love your children, or anyone else, or even God, it starts and ends with how you love her. You will love everyone else well if you love her first. Understand? That’s the litmus test for everything. Every day when you examine your conscience, I want you to ask yourself, ‘Would my wife say she feels that is true?’ If not, say, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” and get to it.

Marriage truly is the Sacrament of divine friendship in human vesture. Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee!

Time in a Bottle

[Written last December, sat in my drafts, sent out today]

Oh, how precious time is! Blessed are those who know how to make good use of it. Oh, if only all could understand how precious time is, undoubtedly everyone would do his best to spend it in a praiseworthy manner! — Padre Pio

I woke up with a start at 3:30 a.m. with the Jim Croce song, Time in a Bottle, playing in my head. It was startling, first of all because I had not thought of the song in years, and second of all because it sounded like it was playing in my ears when I woke up.

The day before I had spent the whole day with my wife, Patti, and all four of our children (at once!), which is very rare these days. We went to a movie, ate out, and later at home told funny family stories and looked at old pictures until after midnight. As the day ended, I was filled with overflowing gratitude for this fleeting taste of what I once took for granted. Before Patti and I went to bed, I pulled up the nuptial blessing that was prayed over us by Bishop Smith on our wedding day and shared this last part with her:

May they be blessed with children,
and prove themselves virtuous parents,
who live to see their children’s children.
And grant that,
reaching at last together the fullness of years
for which they hope,
they may come to the life of the blessed
in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Through Christ our Lord.

I told Patti how sad time’s relentless passage was, and she countered with a Dr. Seuss quote — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I went to sleep struggling to gratefully offer to God, and not rue, the passing of life into memory.

So as I laid awake at 3:30 a.m. recalling the song’s lyrics, it all suddenly made sense why this particular song had come to mind in my sleep. When I was young, I always grieved the passing of happy times and fantasized about time travel so I could return and re-live good times again. I just knew I would appreciate them more next time around! I also used to daydream, when I was in my teens, about singing this song to my future wife. And now this song had come to embrace my children as well, who have come to re-define life’s meaning for me.

I wrote on a piece of paper next to my bed,

God became human to ensure that nothing in time consecrated by love is lost in eternity, and — even more! — allowed His own immutable eternity to be enriched by time, consecrated and taken up into Himself. And He who is love even takes up into Himself the loveless, drowns it in His mercy and raises it with glorious wounds. The God who IS, became. Became all things for us, to seek and save what was lost. John 1:14 touches all of time, touched yesterday.

I fell back asleep and dreamed about walking along a backwoods path in Iowa where the kids and I, back in 2008, would go on a ‘secret adventure’ early every Saturday morning. When I woke up again, I prayed my morning Suscipe and listened to the song…

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me.
To Thee, O Lord, I return it.
All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.
Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

Unconditional love is hard

ponant.com

[Happy St. Therese’s overshadowed feast! Again, this week is a non-stopper at work so I anticipate another posting lull. Hope lives eternal and I am hoping things will soon slow down. God love you all and thanks for the beautiful and encouraging comments over this last week]

A man I know who has gone through some very difficult marital struggles over the last year sent me an email last week reflecting on their “great trial,” as he called it. I asked him if I could post snippets of that email to share the fruits of their struggle with others. Their difficulties were related to some fundamental disagreements over parenting matters and in-laws taking sides. They have three adolescent children. I edited it down a bit and cleaned up his voice-to-text gibberish.

Yeah it’s been tough between us this year. Really since last December we’ve been dealing with this whole [family matter]. It’s the closest we’ve come to feeling totally alienated from each other which let me tell you is the worst pain I’ve ever felt. We went to counseling thank God and started praying together about the whole thing and have come to a good place. We got to the root of our disagreements and have come up with some workable compromises. But man it was a bad ass ride getting there. [My wife] and I can see totally how couples who aren’t 100% about their marriage as forever could run into the wall we did and just give up. We think that if you don’t have faith in God to turn to for help, and to make “forever” make serious sense, we just don’t get how you can do it. It’s hard enough when you do have faith! Jesus talks about the difference between houses built on sand or rock and for us THAT’S IT. I know you know the storms that come can be bad bad.

The counselor helped us think of the whole parenting thing as learning to dance together. Learning each other’s weaknesses and strengths and then building on strengths to fill in for the other’s weaknesses. Team work basically. Team work when you disagree on stuff is the hardest and most important part. Which is where love gets tricky. “Love choreography” is what he called it. Hated the name but it’s right on. [The counselor] wasn’t really a man of faith but we brought our faith into it and prayed a lot. Like all the time. The dance has God’s rules to follow like forgiveness honesty humility trust, so prayer is a must. It all seemed so easy the day we got married! We would have said then our love was strong enough already. Ha! But when you settle down and get to it with real life love takes no prisoners. But it’s sweeter than ever now because it’s real. You know what I mean?

I went to our parish priest for confession at the end of all this. He was frickin awesome and pulled no punches. That’s what I need. He said God commanded me on our wedding day to love my wife more than anything in the whole world. He said no one else in life gets the promises she got from me. She should be my #1 before my parents, my job and even the kids. He said I have to decide this every day, is she #1 or not? Which means giving all I’ve got for her and not just leftovers. All that was a giant lightbulb for me. I could see I completely took her love for granted. Tom it’s really tough to admit you’ve taken your wife for granted and let other things run all over your relationship when you thought you were a great husband. Until this whole thing happened I didn’t see how I’d let everything else in my life creep in and stick her back in 2nd then 3rd then 4th place.

If you’ve got a minute there’s a video of a dancing couple I told [my wife] sums up for me the work I want to put into making her my #1. Just wish I looked as good as that dude! Damn Tom unconditional love is hard! Thank God the Sun for staying with us in the middle of it all. God rocks! Watch it if you get a minute …

Fathers walking with us

Sacramental Confession. pravmir.com

[My last repost in this series and last post till next weekend — always a joy to share faith here and receive the depth of comments that stream in. Godspeed!]

Any religion concerned about the souls of people and not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economics that strangle them and the social conditions that imprison them is a molly coddle religion awaiting burial. — Martin Luther King

Between the years 2000 and 2001, I came to know a priest who was one of the most human people I have ever known. If I had to use one word to describe what stood out most in him, it would be “accessible.” Which is really another way of describing the quality of his fatherly heart. He was the kind of person everyone felt comfortable around. I grew quite close to him the time I was there and came to deeply appreciate his model of servant-leadership. He would always say that managing the administrative side of parish life was not his strong suit, but that he knew the best way to compensate for this deficit was to gather around him people who were good at it. Which, I said to him, was a sign to me that he was good at administration!

I was especially moved by his extreme generosity. Whenever people would give him money, gift cards to restaurants, food, he would almost always find a way to give it away to someone he knew would benefit from it. And very often he would find a way to do it anonymously, almost making a game out of it (which delighted him). His business manager shared with me confidentially that this priest would have him identify needy families in the parish and then anonymously pay for their utility bill out of the priest’s own private income.

He walked the streets of his parish territory daily for exercise, praying a rosary and stopping to chat with beggars and vagrants to see what their needs were. He was always in communication with Catholic Charities to see what could be done to give them a hand up, “and not just a hand out,” as he would say.

During that time, Patti and I were going through a very tense period regarding my decision to leave my job, as she and I did not see eye to eye. It was one of the most difficult times in our marriage. He took a long walk with me one day to help me process the situation, pray with me and give me wisdom. At the end of the walk, he prayed over me and then handed me a $100 bill, saying, “take her out to dinner and please don’t say it came from me.” I was overcome with emotion. He said, “This is why God called me to celibacy, so I can be freed up to do things like this; to be free for you and Patti. I’m alone so that I can be with you. And with them [pointing to the people on the streets].”

That dinner conversation Patti and I had was a breakthrough for us, and I am convinced that his act of sacrificial love had entered our marriage that day and opened between us a space of grace and freedom. That is the paternal genius of ministerial priesthood when it’s placed in service to marriage and family life. To the lonely and alone.

He made, makes me want to be great.

Thank you God for those men you call to be priests, giving their lives for us as fathers walking with us.

The Cross: Critique of the Curse

Bl Miguel Pro awaiting execution

[repost 2015]

I love the psalms. They teach us the meaning of prayer as nothing else does, inspired by the Spirit and written in the blood, sweat and tears of the sons and daughters of Abraham. The psalms are what Christians means by prayer, and so they populate and animate all of our liturgies and give basic shape to all of our prayerful devotions. As a rabbi I once knew in Hartford taught me, “When a Jew is asked, ‘What does it mean to pray?’ he always answers, ‘Psalms.'” The Catechism #2584 calls the psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”

Even the Our Father, the only prayer Jesus taught His disciples, is really nothing more than, as my Scripture professor in grad school once said, “the pocket-sized Jewish prayer for uneducated and educated alike; a peasant’s psalter. 150 psalms in 7 petitions.” That blew. my. mind. In other words, the Our Father has compressed into it all the major themes of the psalms, including trust, adoration, praise, submission, contrition, lamentation, supplication. Notably missing, though, are the curse psalms. Think here, for example, of Psalm 109:6-17, prayed by the psalmist against his enemy:

Appoint a wicked man as his judge;
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged let him come out condemned;
let his prayer be considered as sin.

Let the days of his life be few;
let another man take his office.
Let his children be fatherless orphans
and his wife become a widow.

Let his children be wanderers and beggars
driven from the ruins of their home.
Let the creditor seize all his goods;
let strangers take the fruit of his work.

Let no one show him any mercy
nor pity his fatherless children.
Let all his sons be destroyed
and with them their names be blotted out.

Let his father’s guilt be remembered,
his mother’s be retained.
Let it always stand before the Lord,
that their memory be cut off from the earth.

For he did not think of showing mercy
but pursed the poor and the needy,
hounding the wretched to death.
He loved cursing; let curses fall upon him.
He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by.

An absolutely understandable human response to injustice. But in the Our Father, Jesus offers a stinging critique of the curse psalms not only by omitting their dark imprecations, but by adding a single, simple and stunning line that has no exact analogue in all of the Old Testament. As Luke 11:4 has it, “forgive us our sins [inasmuch as also] we forgive those in debt to us.” He knew very well that this would have caught the attention of His hearers, and in Matthew’s version (6:14-15) concludes this new prayer with a coda that holds in stark relief what is new:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Though this manner of expression is new, Jesus’ critique of the Old Testament tradition of cursing enemies draws on another Israelite tradition, found in its most dramatic form in the book of Jonah. Recall that Jonah, to his chagrin, is commanded by God to enter the heart of enemy territory — Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian empire which had utterly devastated the northern tribes of Israel — and invoke God’s mercy on the Assyrians by calling them to repentance before God’s impending judgment. Of course, Jonah famously rejects this call and flees, only to find himself swallowed up by a fish and spewed back on mission, still filled with resentment and anger at God.

Jesus makes it clear (Matt. 12:40f) that this prophetic tale is a (comedic) prefigurement of His own willing and passionate pursuit of us, His enemy (Rom. 5:10), into the kingdom of darkness where He is swallowed up by death and ‘spewed out’ by the Father (Rom. 6:4) to bring to the City of Man God’s unsparing mercy. On the Cross, Jesus became the object of every curse, transforming them into blessings, drinking the poison of sin to become for us the antidote that pardons every sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13-14).

In all this, Jesus sets the pattern for Christian life to lived behind enemy lines. After reconciling us with Himself, He sends us out on mission every day into our mildly or terrifyingly hostile environments to proclaim divine mercy by word, by prayer, by deed. By every means. In Baptism, and all the Sacraments, we are joined to the New Jonah, filled and empowered with God’s judgment of mercy, commanded to expend it on the undeserving, the unworthy, the unwilling, the most repulsive and repellent among those we encounter. To us, Jesus says,

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And 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, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. — Luke 6:27-36

I will end with a visual reflection on forgiveness and a magnificent sung presentation of the Our Father in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, to Pope Francis during his visit to the nation of Georgia. Our. Faith. Is. Awe. Inspiring.

God of 10,000 Surprises

Saturn’s eclipse casts its shadow on Cassini

There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action. ― Jean-Pierre de Caussade

I just had to share a story of encounters, elegant in its simplicity. Friday I took the day off from work to restore, and met up with a dear friend for coffee in the morning. We sat outside as the sky alternated between sun and shower-laden clouds, and spoke of things as diverse as family tragedies, Cassini, evolutionary biology, dancing with friends in Taco Bell, the dignity of marriage, the irrevocable choices of fallen angels and praying for lizards. At a certain point a man and woman walked up to us on the deck and asked us how to get to Lowe’s, which was across the street. The woman looked to be in her early 70’s and the man in his mid to late 40’s. I pointed out to them the way to get there, and they set off on foot. But as my friend and I thought of the busy street they had to cross, we at once jumped up and offered to drive them.

We found out that her son, who lived under her full-time care, had autism. He never spoke a word. She told us about her other four sons and the granddaughter she took in as an infant when she was herself 50 years old. We talked about hurricane Katrina, about the challenges of raising 5 boys, of having to care for an adult with autism and raise a granddaughter amid 5 sons. I said, “That’s really beautiful what you do.” She said, “I’m blessed to be a blessing. That’s all.”  As she stepped out of the car she said, “May you be blessed for this.” I felt so small. After we dropped them off and drove away, my friend said, “Unreal.” We sat in silence.  No other words needed to be said, though St. John Paul II’s words came to mind:

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 laborers 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.

I took my friend back to the coffee shop to drop him off and then headed out to grab a sandwich at Chick-fil-A. Spicy chicken, my favorite. As I drove to get there, the song 10,000 Reasons (that I blogged about on Wednesday) kept running through my head. Over and over. I had the radio off and so I hummed it, thinking about my daughter Maria, about my daughter Catherine, about their school Masses, about the mother and son we’d just met, about my friend, about the rain. In fact, I was overwhelmed by an awareness of the intricate and complex web of relationships we swim in, and how Heaven must blaze with fully alive rejoicing when those earthly relationships pass over into eternity — whether through the Mass or through death. Then I thought of this stanza in the song,

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
10, 000 years and then forever more

I arrived at Chick-fil-A, parked and went in, still humming the song. After I ordered, I noticed music was playing in the background. With God as my witness, it was 10,000 Reasons. Dang, God, cut me a break. I started to tear up, only to notice my phone vibrate in my pocket. When I looked at the text (from my son) it simply said, “Maria pls.” What?? I texted Maria the story and ended saying, “All I could think is that Heaven was saying: ‘Yes, we have your memories in safekeeping here. Forever alive.'”

In moments like this, it seems Heaven, impetuous with the impetuousness of God Himself, just can’t help but to grant us a peek in.

So here it is again. Why not….