Good God and Bad Romance

[This is a post that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing in fits and starts over months and months. It’s long, as my posts go, but it’s time to let it go, it seems. St. Benedict, pray for us!]

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. — St. John Paul II

I was talking recently with a gentleman who is a marriage and family therapist about Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. We discussed at length the tendency among some wonderful catechetical initiatives in the U.S. to idealize the ‘wonders of sex’ in a Catholic marriage. Whether it’s the relationship-building power of Natural Family Planning (or ‘fertility awareness’ as I prefer to call it c/o Dr D. Cudihy) or the theo-erotically charged claims found in elements of the Theology of the Body movement (as opposed to St. John Paul’s actual teaching), there can be a “Gospel of Prosperity” feel to some of the promises made to Catholics, e.g. spiritually ecstatic supercharged sex that will leave you feeling more fulfilled in your marriage than any of those secular couples out there who don’t know what we know.

Really?

While it is unquestionably true that data shows couples who internalize a Catholic moral-theological vision of sex and marriage fare better overall in terms of things like marital stability and overall contentment with the goodness of the marriage relationship — along with other very positive effects — there is simply no magic equation between “doing it Catholic” and marital-sexual bliss. Just having right ideas in your head doesn’t mean your whole internal and external world suddenly approximates those ideas. Nor does doing the morally right thing mean it will automatically give rise to pleasure and happiness. The recognition and embracing of any truth is only the beginning of a long journey of integrating that truth into the complex realities of our thinking, feeling, behavior, relationships, commitments, etc. Now, in a culture that has made sexual pleasure into an end-in-itself, that idealizes orgasms as supremely life-fulfilling, or that markets (lucratively) sex with products and techniques that “guarantee” maximal sexual satisfaction without any negative consequences (or children), it can be tempting for evangelizers to mime the illusion and promise that faith offers the same results within its own moral-theological vision. “All that and more (without the bad stuff)!” But, anyone who has actually tried to live either the capitalist-hedonist illusion, or its Catholic mime, knows, if they’re honest, that sex in marriage yields very uneven results.

The simple truth of the matter is that sex is only part of the far more complex reality of marriage, of two different human beings who have chosen to join their very different selves into a shared experience of life. The choice to marry is itself extreme! Just think: a man and woman offering each other a total and exclusive self-gift of lifelong faithful love made for mutual benefit and for the good of those children they hope God will bless them with. So it is natural, it seems, to expect that sex would also in some way be an extreme experience of this enormous gift of love. However, the experience of sex involves and expresses the total real experience of real people in any given moment, itself hemmed in by innumerable limiting realities, i.e. health, psychological state, personal history, temperament, motives, location, time limits, ad infinitum.

Sex is the gift of the real self to a real other, not of the ideal self, and so requires all of the work and struggle and hard virtues that every other aspect of real married life requires to succeed. Sex sweeps up into itself everything else about us, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly. It does not acquire, by grace or by technique, a miraculous immunity from the larger contextual experience of who each spouse is. And like that larger life, sex is uneven and inconsistent and, in the Catholic vision, must always be about far more than merely personal or relational satisfaction. It’s about, among other things, love, justice, temperance, patience, new life, bonding, communication, reverence for the other, tenderness, trust, boundaries, the capacity to see life through the other’s eyes. It’s about a lot.

And sex, like the emotional life, serves as a loud and insistent primal cry from deep within to attend to other (often ignored) issues — things seemingly unrelated to sex — that require action if the marriage is to grow and flourish. Like emotional intelligence, sexual intelligence is very intuitive and bypasses the remarkable capacity of individuals or couples for rationalizing and self-delusion. While you can try to bypass sex’s insistent voice for a while, using psychological denial or alcohol or diversions or some such thing, eventually the truth your sex life was trying to tell you will surface elsewhere and demand your attention. Or your marriage.

Over the years, a number of men and women — Catholic and non-Catholic — have shared with Patti and me their trials and tribulations with sex in marriage. It is an honor to be allowed into that sacred space, and I tread with fear and trembling in terms of giving advice. Dear God, what can I say? I’m a theologian, not a therapist. Among these people, some struggle with a spouse insisting on using artificial contraception, some struggle with the challenges of using fertility awareness methods, some struggle with infertility, some struggle with each spouse’s very different approach to sex and physical intimacy, some struggle with finding time and space and energy in their very busy work-family lives for physical intimacy, some struggle with fear of another pregnancy (rational or irrational), some struggle with an inability to talk openly about sex with their spouse, some struggle with feeling sexually starved, some struggle with feeling sexually used, some struggle with being sexually apathetic, some struggle with feeling tempted to infidelity, some struggle with impotence or health issues that make sex difficult or impossible, some struggle with being pressured to have sex because it’s ovulation-time (or because it’s not ovulation time), some struggle with the too-fast move from affection to intercourse. I could go on.

Of course, every single honest couple would readily admit their own struggles, their uneven experience of sex, regardless of how prayerful or orthodox or open to life or holy they are. Sex is a participation in the larger reality of marriage’s self-giving, life-giving, grace-giving, co-laboring love — with an emphasis placed on the “part” of participation. Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.

My point is that sexuality in marriage is a fully human experience on every level, and when you marry someone, you marry a fully human, baggage-laden human. Sex is a struggle because life and love are a struggle. Marriage, for Catholics, is a Sacrament which is full of graces meant to aid the couple in allowing their unique experience of full-humanity to become redemptive and sanctifying. Grace builds on nature, heals and elevates nature from within. But, as God’s common practice goes, He does not ordinarily remove our struggles from us. Rather, He saturates our struggles in grace so that the struggle itself becomes no longer enemy, but friend. It becomes the primary means of being redeemed, and of growth in virtues like humility, trust, respect, tenderness, patience, fortitude, temperance and sacrificial love. As the Council of Trent put it, God leaves behind our yucky weaknesses (concupiscence) after Baptism “for the sake of the battle” (cf 2 Cor 12:9). In this case, God invites the couple to fight together to conquer sin, secure the lovely victory of love, and become saints together. St. Paul aptly describes saint-making marriage in Ephesians 5 as a Garden of the Cross, God’s privileged New Eden in which He chooses to (re)plant His sacrificial love in creation. Hence, God has planted the Cross in the middle of sex, making its greatest joy the struggle to love your spouse in body, mind and spirit.

The real joy of Catholic sex is getting a taste of the divine ecstasy of infinitely selfless, faithful, total, life-giving and sacrificial love that became incarnate and fumbled about with us. And that joy, when embraced within the whole of our reality — including God’s amazing grace — is deep, abiding and ecstatic. Ecstatic, I say, as it comes from the Greek contraction ek-statis, “standing outside yourself.” Sexual ecstasy in marriage is about making love. Not the cheap version used to describe an orgasm’s passing oxytocin rush, but really making love. Ecstatic love calls you outside yourself deeper into that one-flesh union you pledged in the beginning. Because in the final analysis, true joy is the fruit of being all about the other, about being into their joy.

“…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

This was certainly the rationale St. John Paul II used when he made this point:

Since in marriage a man and a woman are associated sexually as well as in other respects the good must be sought in this area too. From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved. This is implicit in the principle which we have already so thoroughly analysed, and which excludes exploitation of the person, and insists on love. In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.

Let me say to bring an end to this overly long and rambling reflection, all married people should have some trusted person (or couple) in your life with whom they can share their struggles. Whether as an individual or as a couple. Don’t keep your trails shrouded in secrecy. Wise friends, confidants and couples have brought me immense strength these years!

One husband once said to me as we talked about his struggles in marital intimacy, “It just shouldn’t be this much work.” I said, “Really? Are you kidding? Yes it should. Sex for us Catholics is about love, and love is damn hard work. If you think it’s just a cheap thrill, an easy fix, a quick path to happiness with her, you’ll be permanently frustrated. This isn’t Disney, it’s reality. So get to work…”

But if I had memorized the words of Pope Benedict, I would have said this instead:

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

Prune us, Lord, that Patti and I might, by our Yes, in sex and in life, become fruitful branches on the vine.

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

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.

+ + + +

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.