I promise

ashtonlamont.uk.com

My oldest daughter Maria introduced me to the band Radiohead two years ago with her Mashley cover of No Surprises. Recently, she and Ashley went to their concert in New Orleans. Loved them. I’ve not listened to much of their music, but all I have heard I have liked.

Radiohead re-released a 20 year old song about a week or so ago. It’s called, I Promise. Eerie and haunting. According to a number of articles I read, the lyrics consider the dis-ease of disconnection and isolation that increasingly dominates our hyper-mobile and hyper-technological society. The surrealist music video reminds me of Eleanor Rigby — “all the lonely people.” Throughout the song, the thread that binds together a seemingly aimless wandering of angst is the unchanging refrain, “I promise.”

As I listened to it throughout the week, I thought quite a bit about promises.

Promises anchor us in the storm, keep us from being set adrift, losing our inner compass and stability. Baptismal promises, marital promises, ordination promises, professional promises. Promises manifest and confirm your character, forge and focus your deepest commitments. My grandfather wrote me once, “Tommy, always be a man of your word. If you don’t have your word, you’ve nothing to offer. Being true to your word in the face of resistance is the highest act of courage. Without this greatness is impossible. Words kept channel swift and powerful waters into a deep river that cuts rock, broken words diffuse into a shallow and murky swamp that covers rock with mud.” The Scriptures are filled with promises offered, promises kept and promises broken. God is above all true to His promises, true to His Name, a God of His Word — “Faithful and True” (Rev. 19:11).

The word promise comes from the Latin pro- “before” and mittere “to release, let go; send, throw.” So, in a sense, it means to “throw yourself” into the future. A future uncertain, indefinite, unknown. All promises are future oriented, throw caution to the wind in a reckless act of hope. Hope in God alone makes possible absolute and unconditional promises, as the martyrs testify eloquently. “Love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev. 12:11).

Last October on our 21st wedding anniversary, Patti and I spent an evening on the balcony of our hotel room sipping Chianti and remembering many of the big events in our marriage and family life. Patti said, “Can you imagine if we knew all that the words “I promise to be…’ implied? Oh my gosh. All that’s happened since that day? I guess that’s why the promises include ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health all the days of my life.’ Catch all. So you really do know you’re in for a lot!” I said, “I guess that’s also why they say that the eighth sacrament is ignorance! If we knew up front all that the other seven sacraments commit us to, we’d probably run! When you’re Catholic, you can’t ever say ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ If it’s a sacrament, it’s the cross, and so you did.”

Then she sang a line from Covenant Hymn (which she also sang at our wedding):

Whatever you dream, I am with you, when stars call your name in the night. Though shadows and mist cloud the future, together we bear there a light. Like Abram and Sarah we stand, with only a promise in hand. But lead where you dream: I will follow. To dream with you is my delight.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, when St. Thomas More’s daughter Margaret was trying to convince him to dissemble and take the Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, he said to her: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” St. Thomas knew baptismal promises bound Him unconditionally to God’s Kingdom, and that these were the ground of every other promise. He said just before he was beheaded, “I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”

When our first child was born, an “old salt” friend who had three sons of his own told me to never make a promise to my children that I couldn’t keep. Small or great. And if you break a promise, he said, make amends and do penance for them to see you take them dead seriously. Penance proportionate to the gravity of the promise. He said, “They need to get from you that they can count on you. Everything else in your life can fall apart, you can lose your job or even, God forbid, your health. Things won’t always go your way. But if you promise them you will always do your best, trust God, love Patti in the worst conditions and put them first over yourself, and then do it, they will see everything is going to be okay. Your promises are your children’s safe zone. Die before you break them.”

[Verse 1]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise

[Verse 2]
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Verse 3]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Outro]
I won’t run away no more, I promise

“Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” — St. Teresa of Calcutta

Here’s an excerpt from a scripted portion of my talk last Saturday on the lay apostolate in the world, i.e. the mission to be secular saints and infiltrate the world with the love of God. I did not get to present most of it and I never edited it, so please excuse all mistakes.

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There’s a lovely phrase frequently used by Evangelicals when they evangelize, “God has a plan for your life.” At the heart of that “plan,” Catholics would say, is the universal call to holiness. God created each of us to be a saint. Holiness is nothing more, or less, than being made perfect in Christ’s love.

This vocation, regardless of our state or circumstance in life, is renewed from moment to moment. Every new situation we find ourselves in is a fresh calling from Jesus: COME, FOLLOW ME. My child awakens at 2:00 a.m. with a nightmare: Come, follow me out of your rest. My boss fires me unjustly: Come, follow me in patient endurance and hope. My irritating neighbor knocks on my door asking me to move my car, again (which is actually in front of my property): Come, follow me in speaking the truth in charity. My alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. to pray before I leave for work at 5:00, and I’m tired: Come, follow me into your prayer room where I await your sacrificial offering. The doctor gives me news of terminal cancer: Come, follow me along the way of the cross, of dark faith and of trust. When we see all life as a vocation, everything becomes a new opportunity to choose God’s plan by choosing life, faith, hope, trust, patience, honesty, kindness, forgiveness – in a word, by choosing love…

Love of God and love of neighbor.

But what is love? To love is to will the well-being, good, fulfillment, salvation of another. All of the commandments are the substance of love, giving love meaning and direction, and rooting it in justice. Of course, we can love our neighbor by willing their good, but what of God? He is Goodness itself, purely actualized. We cannot will His well-being, good or fulfillment.

So how can we love Him?

By willing what He wills. And what does He will? The good of our neighbor. And how do we do that? By keeping His commandments. And so it all circles back on itself, a closed and endlessly revolving circle that binds love of God and neighbor inextricably together. They can never be separated — when you love God, you are loving your neighbor; and when you love your neighbor, you are loving God. God does not compete with His creation, as if we had to choose God or others. Only when we sin do we establish a competition.

Jesus commanded us, taking His words from Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This does not, by the way, mean that self-love and self-care are models of genuine love. (nothing against self-care) Rather, this commandment means that to love one’s neighbor is to love oneself. What I do to my neighbor I do to myself. If I kill my neighbor, I commit suicide. If I slander my neighbor, I slander myself. You might even say that God Himself obeys this same commandment. Inasmuch as God made us in His own image, and became Man, He made the welfare and good of humanity His own. He loves humanity as Himself, loves us as another self. This binding love meant the Father could not but raise Christ from the grave into eternal life.

God wishes us to think of Him the same way: when we love neighbor, we love not only ourselves but Him. God does not eat sacrifices, like the pagans thought, but His hunger and thirst is satisfied through our feeding the hungry and thirsty — “I was hungry, thirsty and you gave me food, drink.” Or Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.”

Dorothy Day made this point stunningly when she said that we only love God as much as love the person we like the least. This is the hallmark of Christian love: sacrificial, self-less, other-centered, forgiving love. God loves most to be loved through our enemies. Only such love possesses restorative, reconciling power. It’s also why Fr Walter Ciszek, who spent 23 awful years in Soviet work-prison camps, said that persecution is really our enemies testing how serious we are about this love thing. So when Christians suffer abuse and hardship and persecution for their faith, their first recourse must not be outcry and  lawsuits, but mercy, patient love, and courageous, uncomplaining, un-bitter endurance. Even as they pursue justice.

Because every vocation is always a declension of love, the fundamental vocational discernment question is never, “What does God want for me?” but “what does God want for others?” Never first, “What good will this bring me,” but “How can I best, most efficiently expend everything I have been given on others? How can I best obey the law of the gift? What is (as my own spiritual director once said it) the most likely way I can be assured to die broke, having expended my gifts on other’s well-being and divine glory?”

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

Discernment is about the divine-human alignment of my gifts and desires with the needs around me. A really brilliant Sudanese missionary priest I met years ago said, when I asked him how he decided to become a priest,

I can tell you this — it didn’t begin with my exploring “I, me, my;” but with exploring “thou, thee, thy.” God, neighbor. My mother taught me that as a small child: You will find God only when you fill the mouth of your brother, your sister. In American culture so much discernment is an agonizing over personal fulfillment and happiness — what will make me feel fulfilled, me happy, me complete? Love can’t start there or it will always be a tortured process, locked in your ego. Because the center of gravity in every vocation is always the other, the neighbor, the church, the village, the world, God.

A vocation feels like a direct compliment of God to me: I am special, unique, gifted, God has called me by name. Yes, there is truth in that. But vocation must always be attended by mission, which is always a direct compliment for the neighbor to whom we are sent by God. Vocation serves mission. Sometimes people get stuck in naval-gazing vocation circles because they know if they say Yes, freedom tightens, the mission begins, and we must forget ourselves. But this is natural in a culture that claims rights without responsibility, gifts without giving.

For me my discernment to be a priest was simple, but not easy. There is a real need for priests, I had a desire, an openness and I had the gifts to accomplish priestly ministry. So, I am a priest. I saw the apostles did not deliberate over personal fulfillment when Jesus called. They dropped all. With the hand on the plow, no turning back. The rich young man in the Gospel? He stopped and deliberated his personal happiness and fulfillment, weighed his options and went away sad. The Devil makes us look back over and over, always wondering if other pastures are greener.

When Jesus calls, He does not say: “Do you want to feel happy and fulfilled and special?” No, he says, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep, tend my lambs.” Our response should always be, “Yes, Lord! Now, which sheep, how to feed, how to tend?”

Jesus is clear, mission is really cross-carrying. Pick up your cross and follow me. This reminds us every day that thinking of our calls as an ego trip, rather than death-to-self for the other, is a total farce. Only when you embrace this will you stay faithful when you face all of the hardships, temptations, struggles that will come your way. If the whole vocational edifice is built on me, my, mine you will fall fast, like a house built on sand.

To love, think and live like this, we must be immersed, soaked, drenched in God’s love; be intimate with Him, drawing our power from Him like a branch grafted to a Vine. We have to have our imaginations captured by the greatness of this adventure — like Augustine said: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” Once you fall in love with Jesus and allow His love to enter your life, you become more able to respond to His call at every moment, consecrating the very earth by every drop of blood you shed.

Pope Benedict helps us here:

If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, I am incapable of seeing in my neighbor the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others.

Only then can your vocational mission look, as it must, like this…

Lent, the Liturgy of Agápē

Lent! It’s here, the party’s over. The liturgy bids us cease the festive parades of Carnival and enter the quiet desert of heart-rending penitence. In place of the laughter and cheer of Mardi Gras, we now hear the weeping of Adam, the dirge of Eve that echoes still from the primal Fall (Gen 3:19), along with the press of mortal ash that crosses our foreheads:

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es,
et in pulverem reverteris.
“Remember, man, you are dust
and to dust you will return.”

Liturgy is God’s manner of (re)structuring and redeeming time and space.

We who have been Baptized into Christ and anointed by the Spirit become ourselves liturgical beings, seized by the redeeming work of God (Phil. 3:12). In us the Holy Spirit recapitulates the life, death and resurrection of Christ so that we might be daily remade in His likeness. We pray, “Christ, live your life in me.”

Like a signet ring pressed into soft wax, the Spirit-filled liturgical seasons of the church year mark history’s unfolding with the diverse facets of the mystery of Christ. The church, born of and birthing the liturgy, makes the Kingdom’s re-ordering of time and space present here-and-now, in innumerably creative ways. Just think of how — no matter the distortions — these liturgical seasons and feasts have shaped the American culture of time: Advent-Christmas, Mardi Gras, Groundhog Day (Presentation of the Lord), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter.

Liturgy, when it is made alive in us, is meant to become a primary locus and force of the Spirit’s shaping of human culture according to the pattern revealed by Christ in His words and deeds (Ex. 25:9). In the Sacraments we become a living, breathing, walking, speaking, singing, working, suffering sacramental liturgy in the world, allowing the Risen Christ, now exalted beyond history, to daily “crash the party” of life, transforming revelry into the celebration of redemption. As liturgical beings, we permit Christ in each moment of history, through-with-in us, to “do His thing” in all human cultures until the end of time.

Lent is the liturgical space-time warp when the church accompanies Jesus into the great silence of the Judean desert and face the ancient Tempter of humanity with all the weapons of the Father, i.e. prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let me offer a brief reflection on each of these.

Prayer: Prayer is intimate communion with the living God that allows us to bring our existence under the sway of His energetic power. Prayer affirms our dignity as stewards of God’s creation, allowing us to participate in His providential governance of all things, including evil. We have all been marked in Baptism with a priestly nature, and priests above all mediate, which makes each of us a center of commerce, so to speak, between heaven and earth. In this sense, prayer exists to increase in the world Heaven’s premier commodity, agápē. Agápē, in the New Testament, is the catch word for the singular manifestation of the “no greater love” shown by God in Christ on the Cross. This form of love is the signet ring’s image, the signature style by which God governs all things. It’s why the demons, purveyors of loveless death, despise prayer because they know it is Heaven’s chosen means by which creation is soaked in God’s life-giving and redeeming love. Fr. Hopko makes this point with his customary sharpness:

If you wish to prove the existence of Satan, start praying daily with depth and consistency and watch all Hell break loose to try to stop you with a thousand good reasons why you don’t need to pray now. “Not today, later, plenty of time” is their refrain. But God says to us, “Now is the time of salvation.”

Fasting: Fasting is usually associated with cultivating self-discipline, losing weight, taming the unruly passions, breaking addictions or helping turn our focus from purely material to more spiritual realities. In a word, fasting facilitates inner freedom for Christian excellence which requires self-mastery, with the appetites and emotions being under the rule of right-reason informed by faith. Fasting gives wings to prayer, helping snap our tethering cords and allowing us to feel in our bodies the ache of our yearning for God.

Fasting is also about exercising the muscle of solidarity — “I am my brother’s keeper” — under the form of hunger, inscribing the law of sacrifice into our body. Like a nursing mother, Christians eat always with the feeding of others in mind. Fasting involves renouncing good things, especially needful things, in order to free certain “goods” up to benefit others who lack them. This is why the demons hate fasting, because it frees the heart for agápē, for life-giving sacrifice. And whenever we present to God a sacrifice born of love for His glory and the good of our neighbor (tautology), no matter how tiny it is, God infallibly responds in a 100:1 ratio (Mark 10:30). St. Therese said this beautifully:

Even to pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.

Indeed, sacrificial love is the grain of God written into creation, marred in the Fall, and found deeply embedded in the core of the wood of the Cross. When we sync our lives with the endless rings of this grain, we re-create creation with the Creator.

Almsgiving: Almsgiving flows from prayer and fasting. We pray to become capable of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, strength and our neighbor as ourself. Prayer inspires us to offer to God our bodies as a living sacrifice, fasting prepares the material for the sacrificial feast and almsgiving is the feast offered to “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13). This sacrificial feast can be a feast of food, of hope, of friendship, of justice advocacy, of time spent in patient listening or any number of other acts of agápē that bring life to the world around us.

As an elderly priest said once in a homily, “If we give up sweets for Lent, it’s so we can become sweeter to the bitter.” Love that.

In the desert and on the eucharistic Cross, Jesus prayed, fasted and gave sacrificial Alms to satisfy our hunger with finest Wheat and quench our thirst with the rivers of tender mercy that flowed from His open side. God’s liturgy of love makes of every desert an oasis and of every Cross a Tree of Life.

There is a woman I know — have known for decades — who has a son with Down Syndrome, who is himself beset by several severe disabilities. We will call him Tony. Among his many challenges, he has a sleeping disorder that keeps him up for 3-day stretches 2 to 3 times a month. And this has gone on for nearly 30 years. Because he is terrified of being alone during the night during these stretches, she stays awake with him, and then works during the day while he is at school. That astounds me. Once when I was speaking with her, I complimented her amazing stamina and selfless love for him. She said, “No, it’s Tony who’s the champ. He’s the one who suffers with this. Me? I have the privilege to accompany him. You know I say that if I’m ever saved when I die, it’ll only be because of Tony. He pulled me out of my self-centered life and taught me how to love.”

And is that not the meaning of salvation? To think less of yourself in order to think more of others.

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Pet. 4:8

This Lent, may our chosen way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving thus save us, and the world, with the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love.

Judean desert. swordsoftruth.com

Mardi Gras

My friend Austin, at his blog, Risking Reality, included this absolutely stunning quote from Pope Benedict. I will share it with you here and then embed three videos I took at the Endymion parade Saturday evening. What fun, as we combated demons that night with the sober intoxication of Christian laughter!

It seems incongruous to speak of Mardi Gras in a theological meditation, because it is at best only indirectly a time in the Church year. But are we not somewhat schizophrenic in this regard? On the one hand, we are only too ready to say that it is precisely in Catholic countries that Mardi Gras is most at home; on the other hand, we nevertheless ignore it both spiritually and theologically. Is it, then, one of those things that as Christians we cannot condone, but as humans we cannot deny? In that case we should ask: Just how human is Christianity?

Granted, Mardi Gras is heathen in origin: fertility cult and exorcism merge in it. But it was the Church that had to step in and speak the exorcism that banned the demons who do violence to men and destroy their happiness. Then, after the exorcism, something unexpected, something new, appeared – a merrymaking that is wholly exorcised.

Mardi Gras is to Ash Wednesday a time of laughter before the time of penance, a time of lighthearted self-irony, whose laughter speaks a truth that may well be closely akin to that of the Lenten preacher.

Thus Mardi Gras, when it has been exorcised, reminds us of the words of the Old Testament preacher: “…a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). For Christians, too, it is not always a time for penance. There is likewise a time for laughter. Yes, Christian exorcism has routed the masked demons and replaced them by the laughter that has been exorcised.

All of us know how far removed from this ideal our present Mardi Gras often is; how frequently it is mammon and its henchmen that reign there. This is why we Christians do combat, not against, but in favor of, laughter. To struggle against demons and to laugh with those who laugh – these are inseparably united. The Christian has no need to be schizophrenic: Christian Faith is truly human.

 

Let Go

[I wrote this back in 2013 and never posted it because it felt unfinished. Well, too bad. Here it goes….]

Nothing will shake a man-or at any rate a man like me-out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only great hardship will bring out the truth. Only under hardship does he discover it himself. ― C.S. Lewis

After I gave a talk on discerning one’s personal vocation the other day at a local high school, I was speaking to a young man I’ll call “John” about his personal journey of faith. He shared with me a really stirring story and so I asked him, of course, if I could share it with others for teaching purposes. He kindly agreed.

He loves to act in plays, is a sax player in a jazz band and wants to be a playwright one day. He was telling me he had tried out for a particular play last year that he was very excited about, but did not get the part he had really wanted. He said,

When I found out who got it, I was totally depressed and felt that the guy who got it just was not the best pick for that part. I knew I could do it SO much better. Yeah, it may have been true, but I knew it was pride talking. I was mad and took it personally.

I had prayed to God to help me get this part before the final selections were announced, but after’s a different story. I was so upset I just quit praying for a while. I was like, God if you’re gonna dis me I’m gonna dis you. One day, a girl friend of mine sent a text to me saying she was really sorry I didn’t get the part, that I deserved it more than so-and-so, and then totally trash-talked him. That made me feel bad for this dude and I just lost it. Ashamed of myself. I saw that my attitude was shallow. It wasn’t fair to him. He worked hard, he got it. Fair and square.

And then I prayed. I said something like, “God, whatever, ok, so look, I want what you want. If he’s the best man for this, so be it.” God and I were cool. It was a total God-thing. I was feeling 100% at peace. I’d just let go of it all and felt so much better. And then you know what happened? Freaking craziest thing ever. It almost spooked me. Like 20 minutes after I let go of it all, and God and I were good, I got a text from the play director saying: “John, because [the other guy] can’t make all the practices now, you get the part. Congratulations.” I was like FREAKING losing it! Are you kidding? I was so happy, major endorphin rush. But I knew right away: God, man, you made me wait till I could accept what-was-what before you’d give me what I wanted.

That’s how I saw it, at least. God is so cool. Yeah, it’s really a small thing in the scheme of things, but it was big to me.

Unheard of maturity for a 17 year old. He held in his hand one of the golden keys for discovering God’s will, the sine qua non of discernment. As I noted in my journal at the end of this story:

If you can’t see God’s will in the present moment, right where you’re standing, and embrace it then and there, you’ll never discover it for the future. You can’t receive it.

This is why in the Our Father, which is the model for all prayer, the first three petitions, all in the present tense, require an unconditional embrace of God’s will: “Thy Name be hallowed, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Only after saying “we accept” are we ready to ask-seek-knock for more in the last four petitions: “Give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.” Before I can receive tomorrow’s sacrament of divine Providence, I must first worthily receive the sacrament of the (real) Present Moment.

Many years ago when I was struggling to manage the grave responsibilities of my full-time graduate studies, full-time employment and full-time family, I fell into a rut and became obsessed with looking for an escape-hatch. I started quietly searching for other job opportunities and began to think about what kinds of jobs I could get if I quit school. In this fantasy, everything seemed so much better! I went to my spiritual advisor and shared with him my alternative plans, certain he’d see my impeccable logic. He listened patiently, and when I was done explaining my plans he said:

Tom, you already discerned this path you are on. Carefully. Your wife discerned it with you. There’s no more discernment. This is a temptation. We can discuss how to make the specifics more livable, get more support, trim out fat in your schedule, but bolting is not the answer. You’ve set your hands to the plow. No turning back. Once you know the path, your prayer is not: God, grant what I ask! Your prayer is: God, grant what you ask. Give me all I need to be faithful.

I wrote in my journal that night:

Damn! I hate when people pop my fantasy bubble. When he said that to me, it was like shingles fell off my eyes and I saw the temptation. Fear of the cross. Fear of commitment. Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of reality. Funny, counter-intuitive, but after he popped the bubble, instead of deflation I felt a rush of grace fill my soul to strengthen my commitment. Like Quikrete was poured in my soul and immediatly created a solid core. The grace I received did not say: “I freed your shoulders from the burden,” but “I strengthened your shoulders for the burden.” Whoa.

When it’s tough in the “now,” when Today offers me a bitter sacramental Host, my character’s mettle is really tested and laid bare. And it ain’t pretty! Thank you, Lord, for loving my mess and building my temple out of scraps and rubble.

Three years later, when I faced a final temptation to abandon the journey, God would re-infuse that same grace when my wife seized hold of my tie, looked me in the eyes and said: “You were made for this. Be a man.”

Grace in my face.

My grandfather wrote to me in a letter back in late 1987 after he’d heard I’d broken up with the girl I thought I would marry. Here’s a few snippets:

You have to be able to find peace within you and not rely on circumstances. Even in a war zone, your soul should be a sanctuary. If you can’t find peace here, now, inside, you’ll never find it anywhere. If you ain’t happy now, you ain’t never gonna be happy then …“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.”  … But you must choose this. God has made you Captain of your own destiny … “If only” is a declaration of defeat. If you don’t see opportunity where you are, in every moment, no matter what’s going on, you won’t ever see it … You only get to keep what you’re ready to give up. You can’t give what you don’t have and you can’t have what you aren’t ready to let go of. The tighter you squeeze water in your hands, the faster it drains away. You see, it’s all free, Tommy, and it’s all meant to stay free. You got to take it like it is … This is a secret to living from this old poetaster, gained from his almost 80 years of life. It’s up to you to take it or leave it.

Beginners, all of us

[re-post from 2015]

I know a priest in his late 70’s who gives retreats to nuns all over the world. He told me once about a retreat he gave at a convent in France, where he met a nun who was in her late 90’s. He said she was a very joyful woman, whose face betrayed her age. She enthusiastically thanked him for the retreat after his last talk. He said to her in reply, “Thank you, Sister, but did you really find the retreat helpful?” She said, “Oh yes, Father, I did.” Then he said to her, “At this point in your life, how would you describe your spiritual state?” She said, “Father, I’m just beginning.”

I told him, “I quit.”

The priest then offered me his fascinating interpretation of her answer. Here’s what I wrote later in my journal:

Tom, that’s the definition of being poor in spirit. She gets her vow of poverty. Man is a beggar who needs to ask God for everything. I thought at once of St. Catherine of Siena’s vision of Christ, who told her: “You are she-who-is-not; whereas I am He-who-is.” In other words, God is the cause of her existence, whereas He is the cause of His own existence. She depends on Him for every nanosecond of existence, He is self-subsistent Being. That blows your mind, doesn’t it?

You can never imagine yourself in the spiritual life to be some adept, or take an elitist stance that places you above others. Humility is the ground of everything. And humility is the most elusive of the virtues, because once you claim it, you’ve lost it. Every day we begin anew, utterly dependent on God for everything. St. Anselm prayed, “O Lord, do not withdraw from me, for if you would, by nightfall, I would be an unbeliever.” It’s said that St. Francis, at the end of his life, said to the friars, “Let us begin again, brothers. For up till now we have done little or nothing.”

When I was a new priest my first pastor, who was a wise old salt, said to me: “Remember, John, this parish belongs to Christ, not to you. So while you are here, make everything you do for the people about Him, for Him. Lead them to Him, bring Him to them, unite them around Him. Don’t build the parish around your personality. Build all to endure. If, when you leave, people think only of you, of your gifts and your greatness, they will always think less of your successor because he’s not you. And because it was, in the end, really all about you. If you think it all depends on you, you’ve failed. Christ can use anything or anyone to do His work, speak through a jackass [Numbers 22:30], so if you build on Christ, no matter what or who follows, the people will find Him. If it’s about you, it will all fall.”

Being poor means being free of burdens that should never be yours. So, Tom, every day begin by letting go of everything, everyone, all your successes and your failures, and return all of them to God. Mother Teresa got this: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” This way, success and failure will hold equal value, as God receives both as a worthy sacrifice and turns them to His good use.

The late Orthodox Bishop Anthony Bloom once wrote, “To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it. The obsession we have in our spiritual lives to possess, to be right, to be better, to turn everything toward ourselves, to manipulate God and others, to demand control over our spiritual progress, over the oscillations of consolation and desolation, or over the speed with which God eradicates our sins. This obsession kills the life of God within us, which demands poverty of spirit.”

St. John of the Cross, referring to God’s action of purifying this impatient need we have to control His work in us, captures this well:

Softened and humbled by spiritual dryness and hardships and by other temptations and trials in which God exercises the soul in the course of this [purifying night], individuals become meek toward God and themselves and also toward their neighbor. As a result they no longer become impatiently angry with themselves and their faults or with their neighbor’s faults. Neither are they displeased or disrespectfully impatient with God for not making them perfect quickly.

Lord, make me poor in spirit so your Kingdom might come in me. Amen.

Parenting advice

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Dear friends of ours, when they found out they were expecting their first child, asked Patti and me for parenting advice. Though I think there are tons of people far more qualified than I am to offer true wisdom, I acceded to their wish. What wisdom we do have on parenting we learned from God’s kindly light, from others or from our many mistakes. Patti also wrote them her advice, which I never saw. I’m sure it was far more practical than mine. Below is what I wrote. As my blogs go, it’s long! But if there’s anything useful here for new parents, I hope it does some good.

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Let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have greater wealth and glory than riches can provide. If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth, but who requires nothing. Don’t think that only monks need to learn the Bible; Children about to go our into the world stand in greater need of Scriptural knowledge. — St. John Chrysostom

Moral education entails asking of a child or a young person only those things that do not involve a disproportionate sacrifice, and demanding only a degree of effort that will not lead to resentment or coercion. Ordinarily this is done by proposing small steps that can be understood, accepted and appreciated, while including a proportionate sacrifice. Otherwise, by demanding too much, we gain nothing. Once the child is free of our authority, he or she may possibly cease to do good. — Pope Francis

“Thoughts on Raising Children.” I will limit myself to [twenty three], so I’ll actually give you something useful and won’t put off writing this until “that day” that will never come! There’s so much more to say. This is what came to me as I sat today. Have no illusions that we achieved them all! But we aspire to them all. Love you both. Cherish every day. Jesus is with you! Tom

  1. Remember your children aren’t yours, are not your possession, and you are neither the arbiter nor the judge of their worth or purpose or mission in this life. They are given by Him to you, entrusted to your care. Though you are given the dignity of being co-creators with God in bringing your child into being, once they exist your power over them is only that of shepherd and steward, a divine vicar who mediates and discerns for and with them. You must not manipulate their life’s unfolding under grace. Your main task is to help them learn, like the prophet Samuel, to hear the voice of God for themselves and be ready to consent to His will when they know what it is. So your primary posture toward your children is reverence and gratitude, holy fear and a readiness to reveal to them, as best you can, the Face of God each day in your own faces. Especially in your smiles.
  2. The greatest gift you can give your children is your marriage, which is meant to be for them a safe playground within which they can grow. Framed by stability, consistency, joy, faithfulness, affection, laughter, openness to life, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, adventure and diversified unity, this playground will allow them to feel safe enough to sprout, grow and bloom. Let them see a living model of what love looks like so they can internalize what is to be the grand narrative of human existence: The wonder-full drama of human and divine love!
  3. Order your home with rhythms of time and predictable patterns, within which spontaneity means something. Your home should know that balance between the given and unyielding structures of nature and the creative and spontaneous freedoms of grace. Too much rigid structure can stunt the unfolding of their playful uniqueness, while too much freedom can leave them without the safety of boundaries or the solid foundations of virtuous habits. Somewhere between tyranny and anarchy is charity. 🙂
  4. As spouses-become-parents, you are sacramentally consecrated as priests empowered to bless your children and intercede for them in their needs. Bless them every day, all their lives. Make it a bedtime routine every night, a brief ritual that will imprint itself in them as a gesture of care and tenderness. A sign of the cross on their foreheads with a brief formula that is your own, including the Trinitarian invocation, with a splash of holy water. Relentlessly pray and quietly sacrifice for them every day, especially in times of need, celebration or rites of passage.
  5. Teach them to pray. Have them memorize the traditional prayers from the earliest age. Encourage them to speak to God from their heart with intention (i.e. knowing they speak to God who loves them) from the first days they can speak. Never make prayer a punishment, never discipline them with anger during prayer, and make daily family prayer time short and sweet and consistent, though with a variety of forms. Give them a role in creating prayer forms as they mature. Use sacramentals as much as possible in prayer — candles, holy water, incense, holy images, relics, beads, etc. Soak their senses.
  6. Make Sundays special days of worship, catechesis, joy, fun, food, family. Develop Sunday traditions that set it apart, a special time of family leisure and celebration. We recommend “screen free Sundays” to protect face time: no electronic devices with screens all day, except for family movies or sports. Have Sunday Mass stand as a centerpiece of the day. Have a special meal, offer hospitality to others, visit a nursing home, play games, take trips to the park.
  7. Teach them to work, sacrifice and serve in (always) age-appropriate ways by giving them home responsibilities early on (i.e. chores). Though your witness as parents to a life of hard work and servant leadership is essential, challenging them from a young age to work and make sacrifices themselves, and put others first, is far more important. Can’t emphasize that enough! This links to the principle of subsidiarity, which, as you know, means that the life of a home is a work of shared governance as each takes his or her proper role in contributing to the common good of all. “Do your part.” Responsible care and use of their own possessions, as well as responsible care for common areas and things in the home, should be part of every stage of their growth in virtuous self-mastery. Social justice, and all the social virtues, are first learned at home.
  8. Let them know love for the poor, the sick and the needy. Make sure they are never far from those who suffer and help them develop, age appropriately, compassionate and merciful hearts. Keep close to the lowly and teach them to live simply.
  9. Oversee their friendships. Friendships are of extreme importance in the growth of children, and ensuring their friendships are healthy and compatible with your family culture is crucial. Get to know the familes of their friends and try to connect your families as much as possible, so they see friendships and family life form a natural unity. That said, don’t be overprotective helicopter parents that require perfect friends who will not challenge and stretch your children. Let them learn how to fight and reconcile, to deal with differences and learn the appropriate virtues for real life. For God’s sake, don’t try to protect them from all disappointments, mean and hurtful words, or the ups and downs of relationships. Strike a balance and let them learn some of life’s harder things for themselves. Bit by bit.
  10. Expose them to great art from the earliest age. Music, paintings, plays, musicals, movies. Encourage their love for painting, sculpting, drawing, singing, building. Get them into kinesthetic learning modes as often as possible. Sing with them and teach them to sing, to play instruments, to write poems and stories. Teach them to make beauty!
  11. Cultivate a love for reading. Read to them, teach them to love to read, especially literature that grows their moral and spiritual imagination. Let their imaginations run wild, without help from screens. Don’t moralize your children, browbeating them with moral lessons, but inspire them with stories of virtue and vice, sin and redemption. Let their consciences grow gradually and don’t expect too much altruism or impose a rigid code of moral rectitude at too young an age. If you press too hard, they may explode later in life. Let them experiment and learn in the playground of your family.
  12. Help them to see the beauty of the natural world by spending lots of time outdoors, exploring the mysteries and adventure and excitement and dangers of nature. Let them get dirty and muddy and wet. Teach them to fish, hunt, spot birds, explore the wild world and breathe the fresh air deeply. Let them feel cold and hot, rough and smooth, sharp and soft. Let them get stung and pricked and scraped knees. Let them be afraid of the thunder, awed by the wind and thrilled by the first snowflake.
  13. Have clear rules for technology. Don’t be afraid of teaching them how to live in a digital world, but have clear guidelines and keep to them. Don’t trust their online explorations for a long time — filter everything. Protect their imaginations when they are to be innocent, but help them face the dark images of life when it is time as they mature. Don’t leave them naive when they should not be. No phones until they absolutely need them. Stand strong, the pressure is fierce.
  14. Guard your speech. Create a language culture in your home that you would like them to imitate all their lives. Be especially wary about gossip, detraction and calumny. Don’t talk about your children in front of them, unless you feel they must hear what you say and would benefit from it.
  15. Yelling is a sign you have lost control. Avoid it at all costs, and work mightily to keep to serene, firm, immediate and consistent consequences. Talk is cheap, action works. Work hard as a couple to be on the same page for applying discipline to the children. You will differ, yes, and you will have to work on that always, but never let your children see you divided on essentials. Never disrespect your spouse in front of them, or let them disrespect your spouse. And unless you have agreed on it for some specific purpose, avoid the good-cop, bad-cop default roles, e.g. dad’s nice and easy on us, mom’s hard and mean. Kids pick up on that and exploit it, and tend to lose respect for parental authority when they see division. Though there tends to be the natural default in a marriage (one is better at discipline than the other), you must work hard to keep toward a happy medium and a united front.
  16. Practice forgiveness. Let your children see you forgiving each other, let them hear about people who forgive others, forgive them often and teach them how to forgive and reconcile. Be humble when you are wrong. Help them see that forgiveness is not overlooking wrongdoing, that it requires a change in the forgiven person, and that it is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Help them develop a healthy conscience that sees mercy as the predominant context of sin and failure. Let all this dynamic be the way in which they learn the meaning and value of monthly Confession. Have a family tradition of going to Confession, even before their first celebration of the Sacrament. Once they receive, have a post-Confession celebration every time — friends of ours called it “Prodigal Son” — that links the experience of forgiveness with the experience of joy.
  17. Teach them how to suffer and fail and sin. They say in my dad’s Russian church that the vocation of the priest and the parent is to teach their children to suffer well. The natural instinct of a parent is to protect their child from suffering and failure, and to a certain extent this is absolutely appropriate. But it must be balanced with your vocation to teach them how to suffer with grace and courage, how to offer their sufferings up to God for good, how to learn from suffering and to not be afraid of it (unless there is good reason to!). The best teacher is to allow as many of the natural consequences of their actions as possible to befall them, so they learn the world of cause-and-effect, personal responsibility and how to avoid bad decisions in the future. Natural bad consequences are often far better teachers than manufactured ones. You also have to teach them how to fail, how to accept failure and its consequences, to learn from these, grow and not be crushed by them. Start this lesson early, and cultivate, age appropriately, virtues like courage, humility, patience, longsuffering, perseverance. Teach them not how to sin, but how to recognize it, face it, repent of it, and rise up from it full of hope and joy. Help them to distinguish sin from weaknesses and imperfections, to avoid scrupulosity and obsessive guilt, and help them see it is really about relationships, and the greatest harm of sin is the damaging or destroying of a relationship and not simply the violation of a moral code. But know that process of growing a conscience is uneven and gradual, is Spirit-led art. So you need to beg the Spirit to guide you, as He alone is the true pedagogue of their soul.
  18. Talk about the faith openly and often, embrace your role as primary catechists and don’t default to allowing parish or school to do your work for you. Whether you choose to home school or not, what they learn from you is their most important source of faith formation. Talk about the Trinity, the Saints, and especially Mary, their patron saints and guardian angels. Teach them to pray for the dead, and visit graveyards so they know how to reverence the dead.
  19. Teach them to honor their mother and father by never allowing them to disrespect either of the two of you. Let them know that you guard each other’s honor, and will not stand for any dishonorable behavior. Honor your own parents openly and visibly. Never speak disrespectfully of your parents in front of them, or of any of their relatives. Though you may have to speak difficult truths to them about family now and again, always do so in charity and justice and respect. Teach them to intelligently honor all authorities in their life (e.g. teachers, priests), and never speak of these people with disrespect, even though, again, you may have to speak difficult truths about these people.
  20. Let them always know that they can tell you anything, no matter how bad or scary it is, and you will not respond with anger or outrage. Yes, you will have to respond to things that require a firm response, but you will never receive anything they tell you with a harsh or angry or punishing response. Always with love that is in their best interests.
  21. Every night when they go to bed, as they grow, let them talk freely. It may take patience and you will have to draw some boundaries of time, but they should feel that there is a designated time and space for sharing their inner lives and that you are interested in everything they say. Building trust from the beginning is the pearl of great price. And let me say, bedtime is a very opportune time to let them open up.
  22. Give them great memories that they can draw on all their lives, memories of a childhood and young adulthood that they can celebrate and laugh and cry over one day.
  23. As Dad, I say: mostly, have them listen to their Mom. “Behold your mother” (John 19:27).

Love them.