Messy Magnanimity

God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions. ― Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Why? I, for one, would prefer ideas. But ideas alone remain in the head, allowing us to become spectators of Truth. Acquiring Truth through the brambles of “pains and contradictions” frees us to choose it or reject it, to pay a price for it and so revere it and love it, whence Truth enters the heart. There knowledge gained transforms, metabolizing ideas into wisdom and virtue, making us not simply knowledgeable but magnanimous, “great souled.”

A friend of mine was going through a really rough patch in work, and spoke to his Confessor about his woes. The priest gave him advice that, he said, was bitter to the taste, but sweet in giving him a sense of freedom. I wrote my own thoughts that night in my journal, reflecting on the priest’s advice. Here’s part of what I said:

You have a real choice to discern. Learn to embrace the cross in your work as a path to sanctity, and stop kicking against the goads, or humbly acknowledge your limits and try to find another job. But you can’t have it both ways. To live in a constant state of dissatisfaction, complaining endlessly that God is not showing you His will is a dead end you’ll never exit from.

If you choose to leave, know the cross awaits you wherever you go next. Have no illusions. But also know He is there bearing that cross already for you. Realize also that if you choose to stay and embrace the cross you shoulder now, while it won’t necessarily make things any easier, it will make you a saint. The key to both? Knowing His will is always found entirely present in every moment, regardless. We’re only tasked with embracing the cross in trust and love, not with resolving every problem.

And “embrace” doesn’t mean you just grit your teeth and bear it Stoically, stupidly. It means finding grace in each moment, and then using your graced wit to discover ways of creatively and courageously maximizing the good and minimizing evil. Then each Sunday, unload on the Altar the whole unruly, stinky batch of dough you’ve kneaded, and give a hearty consent for its consecration by the Spirit in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mess.

Then meditate when you receive Holy Communion on the truth that, in that consecrated Host, you’ve already received the whole Answer to your every cry and plea…

You fill my heart with your absence

Who are you, that you fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the world with your absence? — Pär Lagerkvist

I was speaking with a woman who shared with me her marital struggles, and she said something that captured powerfully a truth:

I feel [my husband and I] have forgotten why we married. Work, children, our own lives intervened and we lost sight of what made us choose each other. My fear is that one of us will find that answer somewhere else.

When I asked her what made her aware of their crisis, she said, “When he came home after a week away, and I realized I never even missed him. That feeling of emptiness frightened me.”

In a relationship of love, absence evokes longing. In the death of love, absence is apathy. This is what the spiritual tradition calls acedia, a listless loss of desire for the good, a loss of resolve to keep promises, as loss of will to struggle for love.

Love is free in its offer, but costly in its reception. Love requires sleepless attentiveness, labor, sacrifice, cultivation, planning, guarding, defending. Yes, there are times we can (and must) rest in the beauty, joy and pleasure of love, but only after six days of work have nurtured those fruits.

If we take for granted the love God has given us, that love granted us “will be taken away and given to a people that produces the fruits” (Matt. 21:43).

Love is not ours to take, squander and cast away. Love is a gift that belongs properly to God alone, for God is love. He entrusts it to us afresh each day, as first in the beginning in the Garden, to see if this time we might — only with His grace — cultivate the life-giving fruits of enduring love that last on into eternity.

Or not.

At the end of my conversation with that woman, I said, “You know that empty feeling you had when your husband came home? I believe that was a gift from God. The gift of emptiness that, more like a stomach than a glass, reminds you you are starving. Even when the feast is right in front of you. Choose the feast…”

How to say Yes to God, No to others

A time ago, I was speaking to a young woman about her attempts to discern God’s will in her life. She gave me permission to share her story.

She came to me because she felt paralyzed by the instability in her life. The last eight years had been marked by erratic, disconnected, short-term commitments. I asked her to share with me how she goes about trying to discern God’s will. After a few minutes of listening, it was clear to me her approach was dominated by emotional reasoning, a fear of long-term commitments, and a claim to immediate and infallible access to God’s mind and will. I especially noted how many of her references to “God said to me” were the very things leading her in circles, convincing her God was as chaotic and indecisive as she was.

We met a few times, and I tried to help her gain some stability by thinking very practically through some of her basic life decisions, and tried to convince her that her over-reliance on the unfiltered claim to immediate mystical access to God’s voice was making her vulnerable to canonizing her whims and preferences. I also said, “Do you see that when you tell me, ‘God told me,’ or ‘the Lord put it on my heart to,’ it shuts me down. What could I possibly say in response to that? No, I’m sorry, God’s wrong?” We laughed.

We spent several meetings talking about discernment as integrating emotions with reason and good judgment informed by faith. We also talked about the longer term work of cultivating hard-nosed virtues that would help her sustain commitments for a longer time and face inevitable hardships courageously. This, I said, would help her avoid the trap she had fallen into of equating “this is hard” with “God is obviously leading me elsewhere.”

I also tried to convince her that her conception of God’s will was riddled with an erroneous view of predestination. She believed that God had picked out all the details of her life in advance, and so her terrifying job was to guess in each moment what those specific details were. She lived in a mortal fear of failure, which drove her deeper into the hyper-mystical path of seeking infallible access to God’s real-time “dictation” voice in every moment, i.e. “My daughter, do this; don’t do this.” I said,

Yes, sometimes God in extra-ordinary circumstances gives us mystical graces to communicate His will and bypasses the normal process of exercising common sense judgment. Those charismatic moments can be beautiful, though even they need to be tested. But ordinarily, God acts through careful thinking about how we can best love Him and our neighbor in the moment; through praying for divine light, striving for purity of heart, making the maximal use of our gifts to better church and world, relying on wise mentors for advice and correction, making our best judgments and then going forward with a will to persevere and carry the cross; all-the-while open to correction along the way.

I also tried to help her discover in God’s will a wonderful freedom and fun, arguing that God allows us a spacious space in which to exercise a real creativity which positively contributes novelty to His plan. I said, “God is a Father not a dictator, a lover not a puppet master. He doesn’t give us freedom only to render it irrelevant. Yes, He wants us to have the heart of the child, but also the mind of an adult [1 Cor. 13:11].” I shared with her a quote from Peter Kreeft that she found liberating,

Take a specific instance where different choices are both equally good. Take married sex. As long as you stay within God’s law—no adultery, no cruelty, no egotism, no unnatural acts, as, for example, contraception—anything goes. Use your imagination. Is there one and only one way God wants you to make love to your spouse? What a silly question! Yet making love to your spouse is a great good, and God’s will. He wants you to decide to be tender or wild, moving or still, loud or quiet, so that your spouse knows it’s you, not anyone else, not some book who’s deciding.

At our last meeting, I gave her a quote from St. Augustine that I wrote out in a note card and told her, “This is the core of what I’ve tried to share with you. If we get this, we’ve got it all and can’t go wrong.” May we all embrace and live this unto God’s revolution.

Once for all, then, a short precept is given unto you: Love God, and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare. In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

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!