Easy to Please

Inside the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ. gatewaytosedona.com

Though Jesus Christ is very hard to satisfy, He is very easy to please. Think of that and it will help you a little. He is very easy to please, but very hard to satisfy. If you will but let Him in, and you have not much to put on the table. He will be so pleased, if it be but a cup of cold water that you can give him. Let it be something genuine, something real. – George MacDonald

During a major transition in my life years back, I was in a dark place. I felt alone, adrift, a failure. As so often happens with people of faith, I projected my own warped sense of self onto God and assumed God’s view of me simply replicated what I felt about myself. If I felt good, God was pleased; if I felt bad, God was displeased. It’s a twisted game, and it made me withdraw from prayer, posture myself in self-defense against God and hide.

During this time, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona with a friend. We decided to take a day-trip to Sedona to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross. As I sat there in the quiet, looking at the spectacular view, I felt a strange sense of what I can only describe as “home.” I wrote in my journal that night, “Today I finally sensed God with me, and it didn’t evoke pain. I sensed powerfully He was a rock, an immovable lighthouse, faithful no matter what. Small insight, vast implications.”

We traveled back to Scottsdale that evening, and the next morning I went to Confession at a local parish. After I finished confessing my sins, the priest said,

Let me read you something from 1 John. Whenever our hearts condemn us, we have to remember God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything [3:20]. You clearly want to do God’s will, and he knows that. Know this: God is so pleased with your desire to please him. I can sense it. He is grateful you are here today giving him your sins and fears. God is grateful. Isn’t that a beauty to behold?

As I write these words, I realize I cannot convey the power they exerted in me at that moment. He spoke them slowly, with intention and sincerity. His words seemed to emanate straight from the mouth of God. For my penance, he said, “I want you to go outside the city tonight if possible and find a place where you can look out at the stars. Allow the immensity of the skies to overwhelm you, and then remember the God who made all of that loves you, tiny as you are, like that.”

That was a turning point in my life, and I came out of hiding. I had come back home. Years later, my wife said something that brought me back to that moment. When we were discerning whether or not we should leave Tallahassee and move to Iowa, I told her, “I don’t feel right taking you away from a place that’s been your home for almost 30 years.” She took my hands and said, “Wherever the will of God takes us is my home.”

Show me the Father

Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring … We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. — Pope Francis

[when I read this quote, it reminded me of a post I had written in 2014…so here it is again]

Quite a number of years ago, my wife and I were friendly with a woman who worked in business with her husband and was (at the time) a mother of two small children. She was smart, was a “mover and a shaker” and had a quick and sarcastic wit. Both she and her husband were very devoted to their Catholic faith and were involved in various parish activities. For all appearances, they were the model thriving family.

The rest of what I share is with permission.

One day the husband asked me if I would meet him for lunch, and after three hours of conversation I understood why. Their marriage was in crisis, and from his perspective it was largely because she was strangling him, and their children, with her relentless and unattainable expectations. He said, “She criticizes everything I do and it’s driving me insane. And it’s making the kids resent her. But I know it’s not her fault. She’s just passing on what she received.”

He went on to tell me she had grown up in a hyper-critical home, with a father who was demanding, never affectionate and who never made her feel she measured up to his expectations. Her mother was passive and never stood up to him to protect her little girl. Then, with copious tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Look, she hates herself and I can’t help her anymore. I have tried to help her love herself, but I’ve reached my limits. I’m done.”

They ended up going to counseling, and made enormous progress. After about six months had passed since the lunch, the woman emailed me a very lengthy note expressing her own feelings of anger and hatred toward God. She said, “I can’t get over the sense that God is far away really and never quite happy with me because I never measure up to his demands. To think of God as a father and me as his daughter is totally suffocating … counseling has made me want to stop living a facade of perfection in my life. But now I’m scared because part of that includes my faith in God which has been a total facade.”

As I do so often with people who ask me to help them grow in their relationship with God, I encouraged her make space for silent prayer in her life. I recommended she try to go to Eucharistic Adoration once a week for an hour, sit quietly in front of Jesus and very simply share all the contents of her heart. Among other things, I said,

When you sit in prayer with Jesus, keep still and just look at Him. Allow whatever is deep inside of you to surface. Don’t run away from whatever agitation rises up in the quiet. Let it burn through you and then speak to Him about it. Give permission to Jesus to enter into your heart freely and surprise you. Say over and over, “Show me the Father.” That is Jesus’ entire mission, so see what He has to say …

A few weeks later, I received a handwritten thank you note from the woman. In it, she said,

… I just had to share this with you. After a few tries in the Chapel taking your advice (which was hard as hell by the way), one night I experienced for the first time in my entire life the feeling of being washed with unconditional love from God the Father. You know what a big deal that is. I was a total wreck and it’s all your fault! 🙂 But here’s the million dollar insight I got — I can only love myself when I know I’m loved like that by somebody who knows me through and through and not just the fake me that was most of my life …

I’m sure you know from your wife that a woman just wants to be noticed … That’s totally what I knew that night. God noticed everything inside of me. All the crap especially. But here’s the new part: that’s what he loved. The crap! Not just the “perfect” parts of me which were the only parts I ever felt were lovable. Excuse my French, but that’s just f-ing wild …

Thanks, Mom and Dad!


A simple post today.

Today is my birthday. I mention that not to attract good wishes (though prayers are welcome!), but to say that today is another day that reminds me of the gap left in the world after my father’s death.

Why?

Well, sometime in the 1990’s my dad said to me on my birthday, with his characteristic chuckle, “Happy birthday, son! But really, shouldn’t this day be about you thanking me and your mother for giving you a birthday, right?!”

We laughed hard. But after that, I did precisely that. I made my annual birthday celebration a day of gratitude to them for giving me life, for co-creating me with God. Especially as my mom was in her 40’s!

I have written often on gratitude, on the beauty of the “it would have been enough” mentality that acknowledges every moment we live as more than we deserve. Simply to exist is sheer gift. To exist is itself sufficient reason for unending gratitude. Asking “why something rather than nothing” supplies us with sufficient cause for gawking wonder and shapes our lives into one giant “THANK YOU!”

But, my God, to confess in addition that God has prepared an eternity of well-being for us out of sheer love?

Total mind shut-down.

My impulse early this morning to call dad with the “thank you call” was succeeded by a sense of grief. And then by a prayer. In fact, I couldn’t help but pray the prayer I’d heard countless times in his small Orthodox Church all those Sundays I attended with him…

It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee,
to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee,
and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion.
For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible,
incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same,
Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.
Thou it was who brought us from nonexistence into being,
and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again,
and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst
brought us up to heaven, and hadst endowed us
with Thy Kingdom which is to come.
For all these things we give thanks to Thee,
and to Thine only-begotten Son, and to Thy Holy Spirit,
for all things of which we know and of which we know not,
whether manifest or unseen, and we thank Thee for this Liturgy
which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands,
though there stand by Thee thousands of archangels
and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim,
six- winged, many-eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their pinions
Singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth!
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!

Fidelity, Fatherhood and Prayer

When Ashley and our daughter Maria performed the other week at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, as part of the Al Copeland Foundation’s “Chicken Jam” fundraiser which supports new local cancer research, education and patient programs, it was for me, my wife and our other children a blended experience of joy, nerves and pride. This was their largest venue thus far, with nearly an hour to fill with music.

They soared.

There was even a friend of mine, herself a musician (and a theologian), who flew all the way from Chicago to New Orleans just to see and hear them. I told her that all of us were overwhelmed by her show of support, but she quipped back, “Support? Are you kidding? They don’t need my support! I just wanted to hear them perform live!”

Growing up, I passed by so many opportunities to try new things that involved the vulnerability of risk. I lived with a certain fear of failure, of being shamed by peers, and so mostly chose to blend in and pick the low-hanging fruit, playing it safe. This is not a ‘woe is me,’ simply a statement of fact.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand (aka grace), after my faith conversion in 1987, I rapidly shed a large portion of those fears and began to venture out into new and uncharted territories. I am exceedingly grateful to God for this, as so much of what I have been able to do in my life would never have been had I remained in the prison of fear.

Raising our own children, Patti and I, encouraged by so many extraordinary parents, families and friends we came to know, worked mightily to offer them an environment and opportunities to spread their wings, to risk new adventures, to discover the gifts God has placed in them.

Innumerable times over the years, the ghosts of my past would haunt me in the night, warning me of grave dangers that awaited my children were they to step out into the unknown. These shadows, bearing weapons of fear and despair, knew well my weaknesses. Without prayer, which I clung to in those nights, I don’t know how I could have pressed on with confidence for our children.

This is where my vocation as father saved me, the knowledge that my children needed me to be something far larger than those constricted spaces of my soul circumscribed by my own limits. Fatherhood called me to transcend those limits for them, to remove my gaze from my own issues and choose instead to focus on the potential of their God-given greatness. As a Confessor once said to me, “They are God’s children, only yours on loan. Help them seek His vision for them, not yours. His is much bigger and better.”

I recall a very specific time when I was bogged down by a “Tom-limit” in dealing with one of our children who was facing a very difficult time. My wife, who detected my struggle, directly confronted me on it. It was an important epiphany for me. She said,

I know what you’re thinking and what you’re afraid of, but you’ve got to remember that it’s your issue. You can’t let it get in the way of letting [our child] learn for himself how much he can handle. You have to set aside your own stuff, step out of yourself and challenge him to see just how far he can go. God knows and I know what you want to protect him from, but he doesn’t need to know.

Wow, when someone knows you that well there’s just no hiding. What a grace! I am convinced that those who lack such vulnerability in a friendship simply cannot grow. That day, I grew. As did my son.

All of our children have vastly transcended my limits, by God’s grace, each discovering their signature uniqueness, going places I would never have dreamed of going. It’s awesome to see. While they have and will always face the hardships life brings, and fail along the way, to see their wings spread, their hearts swell, their gifts blossom, their characters solidify, their faith come alive in a way wholly unique to each … well, there are few greater joys I can imagine sharing in life with my wife.

One of my favorite prayers has become sharing with God my constant amazement over the miracle that is each of our children. I am grateful when I see my own good qualities in them, exceedingly grateful when I see them surpass my limits, and overwhelmed with gratitude when I see God draw out good for them from my own failures as a father.

Ashley and Maria sang that night a song I had never heard before, Fidelity by Regina Spector. As they sang, I was awash in gratitude while standing with my family and my friend from Chicago. Copious tears streamed down my face, at those words…

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart…

That’s it. Love has broken my heart. May it never recover.

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Well, it breaks my heart
Suppose I never ever met you
Suppose we never fell in love
Suppose I never ever let you
Kiss me so sweet and so soft
Suppose I never ever saw you
Suppose you never ever called
Suppose I kept on singing love songs
Just to break my own fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Break my fall
Break my fall
All my friends say
That of course it’s
Gonna get better
Gonna get better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in my mind
All of this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart

Mr. Wallace

Mr. Wallace, me. picdn.net

[Re-post from 2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving the expanse between them

pngtree.com

[re-post from 2013]

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

I said to my wife the other day how grateful I am that she knows when I need to be alone, or respects when I am not ready to speak about or deal with something. And vice versa. We then discussed the artful balance in marriage between togetherness and, for lack of a better word, ‘otherness.’ That marriage is unity, not uniformity — is the intertwining of identities to mutual gain, and not the fusion of identities to mutual loss. Love augments good in the other, and it does not diminish or steal from a person’s uniqueness.

The real power of marriage as a path to holiness, for me, is that balance — especially when it involves children — which is truly the ascetic art of love. Two freedoms, two personalities freighted with so much baggage, so many other people and so much history, come together to enter into a common quest of loving a new world into being. The family. It’s a gigantic adventure, soaring and humble, fraught with thrill and danger, haunted by the impending uncertainties of life lived trustingly beneath the wings of Providence.

Once when I was in Omaha, praying in front of the icon of Christ the Teacher, I saw in His eyes that our marriage was an entry into the the inner mystery of His divine-human love, especially His agonizing love in Gethsemane. There His two freedoms — human and divine — struggled mightily, sweat drops of blood beneath the looming shadow of the Cross in order to forge a new creation, founded on the costly unity born of obedient love offered on High as a living sacrifice.

Since we met in 1988, thousands of times our wills have cut cross-grain, sometimes very painfully, when we have found ourselves at odds and had to find a way forward together to achieve a new unity of mind and heart. Now it is so clear to us that all of these cross-cuts have been grace drenched opportunities to enter more deeply into Christ, into the mystery of His divine love that ceaseless labors to create unity with our human love; though only at great cost to both God and Man.

Which is why our marital practice of always stopping to pray when we find ourselves facing a painful disagreement has been life and marriage-saving. Praying breaks the impasse and brings our struggle immediately into Jesus, with confidence that He has already been victorious in that combat of love. His struggle is ours, and ours His.

Deo gratias.

Yet amid all of the various areas of unity we have achieved, our differences abound and remain. Some will hopefully one day be overcome, while others will never be overcome (nor should some of them ever be). Belles différences! All of them, though, as they create tensions, give us fresh opportunity daily to choose love again, to opt for a restless oneness that opens up new and far more interesting spaces with fresh possibilities to create.

But through it all — and this is the greatest grace of all to me — we know one lives for the other, exists for the other, is for the other. My wife is all at once a garden of challenge and of rest, a garden guarded by impregnable trust. Our marriage is fueled by a sacramental fire that burns deep in me for her, and deep in her for me — a fire of Ă©ros that drives me out of myself to live in her as lover; a fire of philĂ­a that drives me out of myself to walk beside her as friend; a fire of agápe that drives me out of myself to die for her as sacrifice.

This fire is our only hope. Amen.

Sheer grace

deviantart.net

[This post from 2013 came to mind as I showed the video below to a friend last week]

“There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering.”— St. Ambrose

I met a woman recently who shared with me the story of her husband’s infidelity, and their subsequent journey of reconciliation. It was breathtaking. I asked her if I could share the insights from the story with my readers and she graciously agreed. Here is what I later wrote down, written in her voice.

+ + +

It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a slow drift, years. We had just grown apart, gotten busy, had developed other interests. We got comfortable is the best way to say it. Nothing ever bad or hurtful, he was kind to me and I to him. And I just thought, okay, maybe this is just what happens for some couples. I had the kids and friends and church, and I found ways to deal with no intimacy. But I can see now that we both just stopped fighting for each other, for what our marriage was. And then he did that and it shattered my entire world.

After all of this happened, and he left the other woman, I found out I had cancer and then he lost his job. It seemed like everything we had relied on, the comforts and securities of life, had been ripped out of our hands. And suddenly everything we had once thought important and safe just fell away. What we did have was each other, and we had our children, family, friends, faith. I know its sounds so cliche, but only when everything collapses do you really see life is so damned fragile, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Clearly it took that to shake us awake. Thanks be to God it didn’t tear us apart in the end. That’s sheer grace, let me tell you.

During the time of my health crisis, I could see so clearly that our priorities before all this happened were totally out of whack. The frenetic press of life we kept up to acquire material comforts, our compulsive busyness (which was really distracting us from our misery), taking each other for granted, all of this had made it so easy for anything to pull the rug out from under us. We had lost each other over the years and he fell. But really, we fell. I can see both of our responsibility for it now. Never could have then.

After I found out about his cheating, I was so angry and bitter. I wanted to punish him bad. I wanted to spend all of his money, ruin his reputation and leave him impoverished. Even after he came back and begged my forgiveness when he’d left her. But then the cancer struck, and he lost his job. And everything just looked so different.

I remember one time we sat alone in the oncologist’s office waiting forever for the doctor to come, and we were just silent. I know he was guilt ridden, and I was angry, felt alone and terrified. You could have cut the air with a knife. And then he just broke down, and then I broke down, and we embraced and sobbed. I forgave him, and he received that through his tears. We knew all we had was each other. Again, sheer grace.

For me, now, that’s where God is most present — between two people who having nothing left but love. But each other.

When you share this, my message to everyone is, check your priorities. If everything was taken away from you, but you could keep just one thing, what would be left? What would it be? Then ask yourself, is your life built around that one thing, or something else? Fight for it. Don’t wait. And ask God to help before it’s too late.