Orthodox priest hearing confession. Such intimate compassion. 3saints.com
The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens. — Rainer Maria Rilke
At a time in my life when I was near despair, sunk in depression in my early teens, a man named Jack Wallace entered my life. As I had flunked out of school, my parents hired him as a private tutor to help me rally back into academic success. Yet what he did for me was far more profound and far reaching than helping me master algebra or memorize declensions. He gave me hope.
Every week we would work on lessons, and then he would take maybe ten minutes to ask me about my life. And listen. I don’t recall many specifics, but do recall two things.
First, I remember the look of genuine compassion and interest in his face as I would speak about my life. It gripped me in a way I had never experienced before, and opened in me both trust and a belief that my little world of hurt meant something to someone. Omnipotent.
Second, I vividly remember him saying to me, “If you can believe in what you have to offer, you will be amazed at the future you will have.” For adolescents standing on unstable fault lines, such a perspective is nuclear. And he said it with such conviction, after having worked with me for a year, that I was convinced. It was a seed of hope that never left me, a future that one day greeted me.
Someone who gives you the gift of hope has, as Rilke says so beautifully, allowed the future to enter you now.
I searched for him about seven years ago to thank him. I found him. And he wrote me back, “That was long ago. I do remember you somehow. I am glad I helped you. That’s what matters. You should be proud. Kind of you to remember me, an old man now.”
I can imagine no greater gift I could bring to God when I face Him at Judgment, than an earthly life in which I allowed some of heaven to enter others long before it happens.
Thank you, Mr. Wallace, for entering my darkness to shine light.
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St Catherine’s vision, drinking from the open side of Christ
I was broken from a young age
Taking my sulking to the masses
Write down my poems for the few
That looked at me, took to me, shook to me, feeling me
Singing from heart ache, from the pain
Take up my message from the veins
Speaking my lesson from the brain
Seeing the beauty through the — Pain!
You made me a, you made me a believer, believer — Imagine Dragons
In my father’s Orthodox parish church, there was an older Siberian woman who once said to me, after I marveled that she came to Sunday liturgy even though she was very sick, “In my homeland, people suffered terribly from the Communists for going to church; and some died for it. My uncle who was a priest died nailed to the parish doors. So for me to come when I am sick is nothing. You Americans are shallow because you do not know how to suffer. We Russians, we know how to suffer. But suffering can make you a saint or a demon, depending on if there is love. There are many demons in Russia because there is little love with the Communists.”
Years later, as I studied the writings of medieval women in Europe — like Julian of Norwich, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Margery Kempe, Catherine of Siena — I noticed a remarkable “theology of pain” which argued that the experience of suffering offers the most immediate and intimate access to union with God precisely because God made Himself most accessible and vulnerable to the inroads of humanity on the Cross. For these women, the “folly of the Cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) was that God had taken the darkest symptom of evil, pain, and turned it on its head, transforming it into the brightest symptom of love encountering and overcoming evil, i.e. mercy. And it is mercy that grants us full access to the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). And this intimacy with God was to be found not only in one’s own pain, but, even more, by entering through compassionate love into the pain of others; becoming yourself an intrusion of Crucified divinity entering into their humanity.
As Pope Benedict said,
The cross reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift of life without pain. 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.
Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish. If we say that suffering is the inner side of love, we then also understand by it is so important to learn how to suffer — and why, conversely, the avoidance of suffering renders someone unfit to cope with life.
Like athletes who view pain suffered in the midst of relentless training for victory as a regal sign of the pathway to greatness, so saints who dive fully into Christ’s paschal mystery view pain suffered in the midst of loving as a regal sign of nearing union with the crucified and risen God, Jesus Christ. This does not make pain an end in itself, which we call masochism, but opens a confession of faith that God ensures nothing given to Him, no matter how wasteful it may seem to us, is ever wasted.
Praise the God who turns dross into gold, chaff into wheat! For those with faith in this Christ, pain, faced and embraced in love, has the capacity to make you a believer. Not simply believing “in” Christ as a true proposition, but “into” Christ as God-with-us in our pain, making all things new.
May I approach this mystery with living faith even a tiny bit more in this new year.
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Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
Regret is part of human life. It can be crushing. When I was in my early 20’s, I remember Muriel, a dear family friend, saying to me when I was sharing with her my grief over a past full of pain, “Let go and let God. Don’t live in the rear view mirror. Glance back occasionally so you’re aware of what you’ve passed. But give the past over to God’s mercy. Ask God for forgiveness, forgive yourself and others and get on with life. Give the present over to trust. God is here. Take life as it comes. Give the future over to hope. God is already there.”
As she was educated by the Dominicans, she also introduced me to St. Thomas Aquinas’ dictum, “God is so powerful that He can even make good out of evil. Hence many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist.” “The key,” she said, “is to give everything over to God. No exceptions. Intentionally, daily abandon yourself into His arms. Nothing is impossible for Him, except when you refuse to give him what is under your control [Mark 6:5!]. Whatever you hold on to, Satan can use against you; but whatever you give to God is safe.”
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Amo, volo ut sis, “I love you: I want you to be.”– St. Augustine
I discovered this quote listening to a lecture by Msgr. Tomáš Halík, and it took my breath away. I can think of few more profound expressions of how the first creation story in the book of Genesis can communicate to me God’s desire that I exist.
In fact, this morning I spent my whole prayer time allowing these words to sink into my soul. Three things came to mind, which I jotted in my journal:
I so vividly sensed that my worth, value, dignity lies, in the first instance, not in what I can achieve or do, but in who I am; that I am. I could hear Pope Benedict’s “you are a thought of God; you are willed, loved, necessary” ringing inside of me with majestic force. Electric.
It is only when I enter into these words from the inside, permitting them to be received as spoken by God in real-time to me, that they convey this immense force of power. Not simply the mind-tickling interest of speculation. This is unquestionably what it means to transition from intelligo to credo, from “I understand” to “I believe.” Understanding enlightens, belief defines.
I also thought of Fr. George Rutler’s homily back in 1991 when he called Satan the “orphan maker,” whose ferocious mission is to tear each of us from our primal identity in God, enticing us to uproot ourselves from divine Fatherhood and anchor our deepest identity into sinking pools of quicksand. Every human being yearns to hear Augustine’s words, spoken by God, and spends a lifetime desperately searching for them. In those few words is summed up the whole mystery of God for us.
I also thought of a woman I knew in Florida who suffered bitterly with mental illness. I can still hear her telling me, as she did on so many different occasions, how her tender years of childhood were frequently filled with the angry and intoxicated voice of her mother screaming hatefully, things like, “I wish you were never born! You ruined my life! You killed my happiness!” Terrifying to a child coming from a parent who is to be God for her.
This woman wanted so desperately to pray from the heart. She said she couldn’t. Every attempt only opened in her a black despair that all of it was a lie, and if it were true none of it was for her. How horrible it was as she would sit in my office and cry acid tears that, she said, burned her skin. Then I gave her Anthony Bloom’s “Beginning to Pray.” An insight in the book served as a key to her prison door, “I’m not saying that we must become introspective. [Prayer] is not a journey into my own inwardness, it is a journey through my own self, in order to emerge from the deepest level of self into the place where He is, the point at which God and I meet.”
I think she realized it was her shattered image inside that she hated and feared, which she thought prayer would always bring her to. But no, she saw, it was God-for-her who awaited her to meet her with a Word of love. Only when she could see He was already in her, waiting for her, did prayer come alive. She never told me exactly what it was she discovered when she entered there. Only that it was her “personal independence day.”
But after reading this quote from Augustine today, I imagine it must have been those words that she heard.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.” — (Is. 49:15)
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Kai Logos sarx egeneto kai eskēnōsen en hēmin, “And the Word became flesh and tented among us” (John 1:14).
On today’s feast of the Apostle John, I wanted to simply reflect on this verse of the prologue of his Gospel.
It could be argued that these words are the most unsettling, shocking, stunning in the whole New Testament. The Word, who is “born of the Father before all ages,” “God from God,” “begotten not made,” as we say in the Creed, becomes flesh.
There are a million stunning things packed in this single verse, but let me very briefly highlight one.
Note that John chooses the word sarx, “flesh,” to describe what the Word becomes. Not soma, “body,” not anthropos, “human,” but flesh. In the Old Testament, the word for “flesh” carried the connotation of weakness, frailty, sin and mortality. Genesis 6:13 catches this pejorative sense:
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”
In John’s Gospel, God has a radically different disposition toward “all flesh” — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16).
The Word of the Father has come from the realm of unchanging eternity into our Land of Becoming, and has chosen to become what seems most unbecoming of an omnipotent, all-holy and immortal God. God has become wholly identified with weak, frail, sinful and mortal flesh, even “tenting” with us. So intimate! But it won’t be until 19 chapters later, in this extraordinary Gospel, that the full outrage latent in the word “flesh” will hang sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, as a lifeless corpse sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand
God became Jesus, Yeshua, which means “Yah[weh] saves.” Jesus reveals that God’s innermost secret is — my God, He can’t help Himself — pursuing the lost down endless Ages, even permitting Himself to sink into the pit of perdition with us. St. Gregory Nazianzen captured this magnificently in the phrase, “What has not been assumed [in Christ] has not been healed.” Hebrews says it this way, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
St. Paul also captures the seeming impossibility of a ‘tempted God’ in equally striking terms, describing an inner-Trinitarian transaction between Father and Son with imagery reminiscent of the Yom Kippur scapegoat of Lev. 16:20-22. Paul says, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
For a Jew, this is all so mind blowing.
You might say that the use of the word “flesh” to describe what God became is the most profound answer to the Pharisees’ horror over Jesus’ unorthodox behavior:
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11).
The God of Israel is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34) whose love draws Him into our loveless, broken, fragile, alien land to risk contamination with all that is alien to His nature in order to overcome our alienation from Him. Even “descending into hell.”
God is not, in the first place, ‘absolute power’, but ‘absolute love’ ― Hans Urs von Balthasar
No more to say. Now, pray to the Word from your flesh and let Him love you in the flesh.
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St. Teresa of Avila in mystical ecstasy. Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 1652. wikipedia.org
I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. — St. Thérèse
Henceforth and forever, the infinite and eternal God is God with us. He is not far off. We need not search for him in the heavens or in mystical notions. He is close at hand. He became man and he will never withdraw from our humanity, which he has made his own. In order to meet him, we need to go where he is. — Pope Francis
As much as I am a fan of the mystic-saints in our Catholic tradition, whose lives were often filled with celestial fireworks (e.g. visions, locutions, bi-location, stigmata), I have seen again and again how idealizing such models of holiness can lead many to imagine that their own very homely and unspectacular faith, lived in the midst of the ordinary circumstances of life, is really a low-grade, second class Christianity. In addition, because the vast majority of those I would call “firework mystics” were either consecrated Religious or clergy/laity who lived quasi-monastic lives, setting up such mystics as exemplary models of extraordinary holiness can be perilous for those laity whose lives are bound closely, by vocation, to the mundane “temporal” affairs of the world, e.g. to marriage, family, secular professions, civic life, secular culture.
This subtle, yet deep, connection of monastic=mystic has tempted many a faithful layperson to judge their Christianity by how monastic they look and live, leading them to feel alienated from the deeply world-bound character of their own path to holiness. These equate being holy with being a church mouse, doing and saying religious things all the time and feeling they are “settling for less” whenever they must engage in secular, ordinary or non-religious activities.
Jesus was clear to the apostle Thomas (John 20:29) that the highest expression of faith — the most profound mysticism — is not to be found in remarkable, visionary, mystical, charismatic phenomena, but in an unseeing faith that probes the revelation of God in the ordinary phenomena of pruning fig trees (Luke 21:29-33), tending vineyards (Matt. 20:1-16), cleaning houses (Luke 15:8-10), making money (Matt. 25:14-30), making love (Luke 1:13), stewarding talents (Luke 19:12-28), advocating for justice (Luke 18:1-8), tending the fallen (Luke 10:25-37), breastfeeding babies (Luke 11:27), napping (Mark 4:38), ruling kingdoms (John 19:10-11), paying taxes (Matt. 17:24–27), reconciling estranged children (Luke 15:25-32), celebrating weddings (John 2:1-12), feasting (Luke 14:12-24), drinking wine (Matt. 11:19), preparing a meal (Luke 10:38-42), burying the dead (John 19:38-42), visiting the imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46), welcoming strangers (ibid.), caring for the sick (ibid.), feeding the hungry (ibid.), giving drink to the thirsty (ibid.), clothing the naked (ibid.), forgiving offenses (Matt. 6:15), going back home after mystic fireworks to ordinary life (Mark 5:2-19, esp. vs. 18-19!), and so on.
We can thank the firework-mystics for awakening us to what is always present in every quark of the world at every nano-second — the God-made-zygote who transubstantiates common bread and wine into Himself; the God who created the ordinary as the ordinary means of encountering Him. Like a flower, these mystic-blooms only bear life-giving fruit and living seeds when their showy flashes of color expend their energies into unseeing faith-at-work, giving birth to a tiny, homely seed that contains in itself the whole DNA of the eternal Kingdom of God.
With God-with-us, it all matters.