Make me able to love

All family life is a “shepherding” in mercy. — Pope Francis

Yesterday in class, I was speaking on the Sacrament of Marriage and its redemptive character. I reviewed my notes early in the morning, and prayed about how best to express the points I was making. The focus of my lecture was the sense in which marriage and family life “sacramentalize” — make present and effective — the undying love of God revealed in Jesus. I was exhausted and feeling inadequate to the challenge of teaching that day. As I spoke that to God, those dreaded words Jesus spoke to St. Paul sprang to mind,

My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness (1 Cor. 12:9).

As I sat with that, what struck me hard was the stark realism of the Christian vision of divine love which, rather than keeping an antiseptic distance from the messiness of human life, appears most fully in the midst of dysfunction, weakness, failure, betrayal, division, hatred, death. Far from romanticizing or idealizing marital love, Sacraments thrust God right into the middle of our thorny thickets and tangled relationships, setting Him to work repairing, healing, strengthening all who open themselves in faith to His power. I immediately thought of the words of theologian, Fr. John Behr:

Forcefully stated, this means that in and through the action that expresses all the weakness, impotence, and futility of our created human nature—our subjection to death—Christ shows himself to be truly divine, voluntarily taking this upon himself. As one tries to comprehend this, one is simply at a loss for words. Perhaps not surprising, then, is our all-too-human response to the revelation of God in the crucified and exalted Christ, understood through the Scriptures by the power of the Spirit, to talk about something else—to make theology into an abstract discourse or, like Peter before the passion, to try to separate Christ from the cross

And try to separate marriage and family life from the cross. I then thought this is why St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians identifies marriage with the crucifixion — because God calls the couple to holiness by sharing in His sufferings and imitating His sacrificial covenant love; because God calls the couple to cry out to Him from the depths of their weakness, impotence, and futility; and because God calls the couple, as sinful perpetrators of the crucifixion, to receive His redeeming, restoring, transforming love. Marriage is indeed a mystery immersed in mercy.

I wrote this prayer in the margins of my notes,

You are a fire always burning but never consuming; you are a fire consuming in your heat all of my soul’s selfish love; you are a fire warming all chill and giving light to my darkness. Make me able to love your daughter, Patti, with your love, in all my imperfect love, that along with my feeble love she might also receive your perfect love.

Then I searched YouTube for a video I use when I teach marriage workshops, and happened on this:

Ring Mass

I want to thank most sincerely all those who have been leaving comments of late. They often leave me speechless and grateful. Such a remarkable community of people that visit this space. I have not responded of late only because of the press of time. But they are read and deeply appreciated.

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The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom. ― N.T. Wright

I only have a simple thing to share today, a bit self-indulgent. Monday night was the Senior Ring Mass at my daughter Maria’s school. My wife and I sat together. It was very simple, dignified and beautiful. Maria, and her singing partner Ashley, were in the Celebration school choir. As some have mentioned to me, I have been wistful of late about yet another child moving on past high school into adulthood. She’ll be 18 very soon.

During the Preparation of Gifts song, 10,000 Reasons, I was overcome yet again by the need to let go and give her to God. As I watched her sing, I recalled the afternoon we had spent a week ago, at a coffee shop, going over the college application checklist and talking about her future. I recalled the day she brought her Senior sweater home (and her elated face), her Junior Prom (and her dress), her first day at Mount Carmel (and her nerves), the last time we went fishing together (and the quiet closeness), the midnight trip to Baskin Robbins after the Twenty One Pilots concert (and the effervescent joy), the day I told her we were leaving Iowa for Louisiana (and the tears), the day I told her we were leaving Florida for Iowa (and the puzzlement over what that meant), the day I took her to her first day of preschool (and my unexpected tears), the day I took her to catch tadpoles and (I) fell into the pond (and her smart 6-year old comment, “Thanks for the demo, dad”), the day she turned 1 and smashed her birthday cake all over her face (and the unhinged glee), the day she was born (and the terrible fear as she was not breathing), the day Patti told me she was pregnant a third time (and the shouts of ecstasy), the day I wrote a letter to the children I one day hoped to have (and the overflowing heart).

I started to well up and stream down, but was stopped by the call to hand it all over.

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.

How absolutely seamless it all was (and safe now in eternity).

Falling backwards

[re-post from 2015]

“Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling. ” ― Simone Weil

I met a woman last year who shared with me the very painful story of being betrayed by her husband, by his infidelity, and the subsequent excruciating divorce. She became through that experience a person of deep faith. She said something so remarkable to me that I asked her if I could share anonymously. She said, as I recalled later:

The whole experience was a death for me. I came to realize through the whole process, thanks to the wise guidance of a compassionate priest, that the promise to love someone always involves a great risk; that love means putting yourself out there, giving someone else your heart; that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. He helped me see that the words in the vows — for better or worse, in sickness or health, for richer or poorer — give fair warning of the risk. What I also came to realize, thanks to my newfound faith, was that this risk-taking is really only possible if you believe that beneath it all is rock-solid and immovable love. God. I think of the vows like that trust-game we used to play as kids. Remember? Falling backwards blindfolded, trusting the one behind you would always catch you. Terrifying! Well, that was supposed to be my husband. He let me fall. But God’s promise remained even when my husband’s failed. God caught me, and the failure of my marriage became a way to fall in love with God in a new way.

[The priest] gave me a verse from the Bible, but he rewrote it for me. I have it in my devotional book on a piece of paper:

Can a husband forget his bride,
or show no tenderness for the love of his life?
Even if he should forget,
I will not forget you,
says the Lord [Isaiah 49:15]

Birthday of the Mother of God

The Nativity of the Virgin Mary, daughter of Sts. Joachim and Anna

[Mary’s] is a motherhood in the order of grace, for it implores the gift of the Spirit. — St. John Paul II

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, celebrated exactly nine months after the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception. Happy birthday, Blessed Mother!

And, may I add, happy birthday to a young man named Hunter! Join me in thanking God for his life and asking for him every good gift from above. A good man is hard to find, but you are one of them, Hunter.

In lieu of Mary’s feast, I would like to honor her by sharing a very personal grace I received through her hands that has benefited me to this day. My hope is that it will simply serve as a lesson for you.

Late in 2006, while I was working on my doctoral dissertation and working full time, with four small children at home, I was growing progressively discouraged with my ability to complete the research phase and get to writing. I was deathly afraid I might end up, with so many other doctoral students, buried in the ABD (All But Dissertation) graveyard. I would wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning and work until 10:30 or 11:00 each night trying to take to heart advice given to me by a venerable professor on my dissertation committee: Eat books. What I soon realized as I started down this path is that one book’s footnote leads to another book leads to an article leads to a monograph leads to someone else’s dissertation on a related topic, etc. And as you press your way deeper and deeper into the thickets of knowledge, you suddenly realize the original premise of work may very well be entirely misplaced.

Then you cry, get over it and start all over again after you get some sleep.

In the midst of all this intensity, my wife Patti, who is both keenly perceptive and brutally truthful, noticed something very important. I had filled my early morning prayer time with research. Early one Thursday morning in December, she saw me working at my desk and immediately took me to task (as she did again just the other day!), pressing her index finger into my chest: “You need to be a man of prayer or you’re no good to us. You’ll lose your focus, your center and your anchor. Know thyself, Mr. Neal.”

She has a way of speaking that is all at once loving and fiercely commanding — all who know her need no further explanation here. I stood exposed, convicted and resolute in recommitting to my early morning prayer.

The next day, Friday morning, was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. I was praying at around 5:15 a.m. As was (and is) my daily custom, I spent the first 30 minutes mulling prayerfully on the Scripture readings for the Mass that day. As I got to the Gospel, which narrated the story of the archangel Gabriel bearing God’s stunning request to Mary, I reflected on how overwhelmed she must have been at the sudden discovery of her vocation to be the mother of the Messiah. For some reason the word “overshadowed” made me think of how overwhelmed she must have felt, coming to terms with the immensity of what was happening to her as the eternal God entered her body to become flesh.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

I stopped and asked her to pray for me to face my feelings of overwhelming discouragement and fear with the same courage and faith she showed in consenting to God’s will. Very suddenly, a still silence and a strange calm came over me. I was slightly unnerved.

It is uncharacteristic for me to have intense experiences during prayer, as they are usually quite ordinary, so I really wondered what was happening. I tried to ignore it and maintain my focus on requesting her assistance. But the calm quickly transitioned into an even more extraordinary sense of Mary’s personal presence near me. Almost spatially near me, to my right. The presence was, if I had to describe it, both maternal and very powerful. As odd as this seems (to me most of all!), I then felt her hands rest on the top of my head and sensed her speaking these words over me: “Father, let your Spirit come upon my son.” All at once I felt a surge of warmth, energy, power — something remarkable — course through my whole body. It lasted probably less than a minute, but the after effect — which I am still vividly aware of to this very moment — could best be captured in one word: fortitude. I felt a deep and abiding sense of courage to face whatever.

And “whatever” came in spades. In December of 2007 I successfully defended my dissertation.

Two women flanked me in those early days of December, 2006. One was my Sacrament with a finger poking my chest, the other was my Mother with hands laid on my head. Both drew the fiery Spirit down on me, and both called me back to re-confess the primacy of grace by a renewed commitment to the quiet, daily, ordinary, faithful life of prayer. Because of these two women, and along with St. Teresa of Avila, I say with trenchant conviction: “We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer.”

We must. And blessed am I among women.

Senior Spirit Day

My daughters each had their Spirit Day the other week at Mount Carmel Academy. What excitement!

This is Maria’s Senior year. Very hard to accept. What’s going on here?

How did this in Iowa

Become this in New Orleans


I’ll be wrapped around your finger
I’ll be wrapped around your finger

I am working with all my might to appreciate every day, every moment — good, bad or ugly — as

I don’t want to miss even one song
‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight
And she’ll be gone

If you care to indulge my fancy, watch even just a moment of Maria and her Senior-sisters’ Spirit Day. They are the Pink Panther class (Catherine’s is the Butterfly class), with a Pirate-themed Spirit Day.

Such joy in life!

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

[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.