“A (lay) Woman clothed with the sun” — Revelation 12:1

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Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own, in her, to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all. Or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her rising now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. — St. Gregory Palamas

Today the Church celebrates the “summer Pascha,” the August Easter, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven. This is a day of great joy for us, as it celebrates the fulfillment of all human longing in immortal glory. If we grasp this point, and believe that in Holy Mass God smashes the glassy pane of time to reach us, our language of “holy day of obligation” to describe our motive for Mass attendance transitions from blind obedience to joyful duty. The Obliged blurt out, “How can I keep from singing?”

I must interject…

All that we say of the Virgin Mary we say of the Church, since she is the God-etched icon of the Church in all her perfection. Though Mary was given an absolutely singular vocation to give flesh to God, we the baptized are given a share in all that she was and is. She is spes nostra, “our hope.”

So much to say! Let me share a few scattered musings I wrote in my journal over the weekend praying on this Feast Day. These thoughts reiterate my core theological interests that I have shared here again and again.

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The Virgin Mary, who is the highest honor of our race, is a laywoman. She embodies the fullness of the baptismal vocation and mission given to the lay faithful. She was a daughter of Israel, a small town girl, a wife, a mother, a teacher and disciple of her Son.

Her identity is wholly defined by her baptism, though her baptism was utterly unique. Her immaculate conception in the womb of St. Anne was a proto- and prevenient baptism, which not only preserved her from sin but regenerated her as the New Eve. In this baptized conception, Mary was saved by the death and resurrection of her Son not yet conceived in her womb. Think on that for a moment. God, who created time, revealed in Christ the capacity of time to accommodate itself to God’s eternal saving plan in which Christ is its Alpha and Omega. As the Catechism says:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (#491).

Mary was redeemed by God her Savior in a way unlike the rest of us. She was saved to the roots of her being (sanatio in radice), freed from every effect of sin, so she could give birth to the all-holy God with full freedom and be a sign of hope to humanity that radical redemption is our calling and destiny. Like her Son (Heb. 4:15), she suffered the buffets of sin, while preserving her innocence, even sharing in Christ’s death mystically at the foot of the Cross and physically at the end of her life, before being raised into bodily glory.

As with us, her baptism conferred on her a share in the offices of priest, prophet and queen.

As priest, she consecrated the world to God by her soulful ‘Yes’ that permitted God to enter and penetrate into the heart of creation to consecrate the world to God (John 17:19). In her, the Father united all things to Himself through His and her Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The devotional tradition of consecrating oneself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is a magnificent means of joining our baptismal priesthood to hers, and sharing in her prototypical ‘Yes’ to God. The world, which emerges as freshly created at every new moment in history, awaits our yeses in order to share in the supreme act of consecration one-for-all effected by Jesus in Mary. Each Yes we pronounce allows the coming of our rescuing-God, who longs to make all things new. Like her Son (Heb. 7:25), Mary spends her heaven doing good on earth by ceaselessly interceding for our pilgrim Church marching through this valley of tears.

As prophet, she proclaims and enfleshes the Word of God by her life. Simply by who she is, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and magnifies God her Savior. She alone bears the Word of God in its totality, and so she “who pondered these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19) is the absolute summation and embodiment of the living Tradition. Therefore, she alone is fully catholic, possessing a universal vocation of prophetic witness to all humanity, showing us what it means to be wholly defined by the eternal Word of the Father. As Ark of the New Covenant, she bears within herself “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which is also the vocation of the entire Church. Because Mary is a fully catholic human person, she is our universal Mother.

As queen, she has been commissioned to cooperate with Christ the King in His redemptive governance of all creation, leading all into the new creation. She bears the whole Church’s Christ-given mission to wage “paschal combat” against the powers of darkness. She whose “let it be done” echoed God’s “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3; Luke 1:38), who is Queen of Light, has been given authority over the Prince of Darkness, crushing him with her beautiful feet that still hasten to carry the Gospel of God, Jesus Christ, to all she is sent to greet (Gen. 3:15; Is. 52:7; Luke 1:39-45).

I remember in my Mariology (theology of Mary) class in grad school my professor said, after discussing the “singular privileges” of Mary,

In Judaism, the idea of being chosen does not mean being “special” or “better than” the un-chosen, but it means to be invited to shoulder a mission for the rest of humanity. The gift of being chosen by God always means to be chosen to serve as God’s instrument to the rest, and ‘To whom much is given much will be expected’ (Luke 12:48). Every one of Mary’s singular privileges — Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, Assumption — empower her to Mother each of you, in union with Christ, our Father-forever (Isaiah 9:5), in becoming worthy sons and daughters of God. And as we see New Eve, New Adam becoming such on Golgotha (John 19:26-27), we also remember that all privileges require great sacrifice. This is lex caritas, “the law of love.”

In her assumed, risen and glorified body, Mary gives witness not only to our future bodily resurrection, but also to the hope of the entire material world of being lifted up by us into the new creation. In Mary, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium — along with the human culture she inhabited and that inhabited her — were transfigured in the new creation. In other words, the “bread and wine” of her life was taken up into eternity and transubstantiated (1 Cor. 15:52). By her — and our — free consent to concelebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven and earth, we confer on all of creation the hope of glory (Rom. 8:18-30). On today’s gloriously joyful Feast, Mary stands as the perfect fulfillment of those extraordinary words of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #39):

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father the kingdom.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Let me conclude with the prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:

O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.

Amen.

Feast of the Vulnerability of God

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How could I let this Feast pass by silently?

Today is the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This solemnity is always celebrated the Friday after the solemnity of Corpus Christi, which is the final post-Easter “dogmatic feast” that honors the paschal gift of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. On Trinity Sunday we honored the stunning revelation given to us in Jesus: Israel’s “one God” is one in three divine Persons. Like husband and wife, God is one, not solitary. On Corpus Christ we honored a stupefying gift from the Trinity: being permitted to ingest (!) the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, and so receive into our own humanity a full share in divine life. Today, June 23, the church offers us an executive ‘festal’ summary of the whole paschal mystery by presenting in a single image the source and goal of the entire economy of creation and redemption: the unbreakable union of divine and human love forged in the Heart of Jesus.

The divine-human Heart of Jesus reveals both the core identity of God and the core identity of man: oblative (self-giving, agape) and possessive (uniting, eros) love. Love is defined in the Christian tradition as willing the good of the other in accord with the divine will, as well as the uniting of two lovers in the exchange of their mutual self-gift one to the other. The biblical covenant formula contains all of these dimensions of love, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Or as the Song of Songs 2:16 has it, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”

Love is neither wholly other-centered giving nor wholly self-centered receiving, but both, with the center of gravity being found in other-centered giving. This is what Jesus means when He commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” i.e. love your neighbor as “another you” so that in loving neighbor you are loving yourself. And for Jesus, neighbor refers to every human being without exception. I would say this is why He makes forgiveness and enemy-love the sine qua non of love since enemies are those we would most naturally exclude from the ambit of charity that demands universal solidarity. This, Jesus says, is how God deals with humanity, His enemy.

Put another way, love is meant to contain a mutuality. In the absence of this mutuality, you have slavery, with one taking from the other without reciprocating the gift. I know a married couple in which the husband, who is clearly a raging narcissist (of the personality disorder kind), has broken down the personality and spirit of his wife over the years with his voracious appetite for attention, devotion and service. But he responds to her only with bitterness and manipulation. It’s painful beyond words to watch, is the antithesis to authentic love in the divine image and the epitome of the primal curse of sin in Genesis 3:16: “He shall rule over you.”

This is why the God who “loved us first” (1 John 4:19) commands that we love Him. Not because He is needy or a narcissist, but because the very nature of love demands reciprocity. God in fact, metaphysically speaking, does not need us at all. He is purely actualized in every way and cannot become more or less than He is from all eternity. God is self-subsistent, without origin or terminus. But because as Trinity God is love in His essence, an eternal act of Threefold mutuality of giving and receiving, when He creates us out of pure love in His image and likeness, He invites us into this eternal Triune exchange and awaits our return to Him in love. This is not due to a lack in God, but rather the perfection of His nature as love which gives and receives. So St. Maximus the Confessor can make that stunning statement I so often quote:

Those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

God longs for us to accept the gift of His unconditionally offered, freely given love and desires for us to respond in kind by a life obedient to the demands of love (the commandments, love of neighbor) and by a total gift of ourselves back to Him that leads to a divine-human union much like that of marriage and friendship. But note that God acts first, He takes the first step, puts Himself “out there” first, awaiting our free response; or free rejection. There is a profound vulnerability, great risk in God’s act of creating us in love and awaiting our free response of love. In fact, the world vulnerable, from the Latin vulnerare, which means “to wound, hurt or injure,” i.e. that God in creating us risked being wounded by us. Indeed, Isaiah 53 is this.

Here is where the image of the Sacred Heart offers such power as a language of love. The image of the Heart, especially as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in her visions of Jesus, shows the divine-human Heart of Jesus lacerated by the signs of the Passion. In other words, His Sacred Heart betrays the bitter signs of human rejection of His gift offered, sings of the refusal of love’s mutuality. But — what a great mystery! — out from the center of that wounded Heart rises a raging fire, the unquenchable love of God for humanity that burns even and especially in the face of our rejection. The words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary beautifully witness to this:

Behold this Heart, which has loved men so much that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify to them its love; and in return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude.

A number of years ago, on my 8-day Ignatian retreat, my retreat director asked me to sit in front of a statue of the Sacred Heart for an extended period of time.  I did and it was profound. As I never had before, I sensed the purity and innocence of divine love — offered to us, it seemed to me, like a child who opens herself trustingly up to an adult with a special gift she has created, only to discover the adult turns on her, abuses her and utterly rejects her tender gift of love. For whatever reason, the image of that small child’s pained expression in the face of rejection — crushed, bewildered — seemed to be that of Jesus offering His Heart to me. In fact, as I prayed more there was a scene from the movie, The Passion of the Christ, that suddenly filled my heart with overwhelming emotion. The scene during the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas when, right after He joyfully reveals His identity as the Son of Israel’s God, they, His beloved chosen, slap Him, spit on Him, and a tear falls down His cheek. It was crushing to see this image as I prayed before the statue. It matched perfectly that image of the purity and innocent trust of the little girl’s face as her gift was rejected. I must show it here for you to imagine with me:

But as I continued to pray through this, there also seemed to be this difference between God and the little girl — I sensed how God is omnipotent and could in a word annihilate the entire cosmos if He willed. Yet that love, the unfathomable innocence of that love (compassion?) restrains Him as He returns trustingly again and again to us seeking out our loving response to His offer of total self-gift.

Above all in the Holy Eucharist.

That’s today’s Feast, the Feast of God’s unfathomable, tender and merciful love.

Rejoice, respond and reciprocate to Him and to your worst enemy.

Amen.

Alone

Monastery church

Final stretch of road I drove to the monastery

[I will break my break today by posting one from my retreat. BTW, loved the comments:) Will reply next week. Pax]

I’m alone.

A retreat I have awaited for months. A Trappist monastery in eastern Iowa.

The silence. So rich, full of meaning. It is a capacity, a space to receive. More, a power of awareness. Attentiveness to the moment. The ubiquity of sacrament. God is with us, in Him we live and move and have our being. Hearing becomes more refined and what was before mere “background” is now foreground. The small is great, the quiet is loud, the insignificant signs.

I arrived in my car with Louisiana plates, parked under the Norway spruce and made it in time for supper. A silent meal. Simple. Stark.

Vespers. As the monks chanted the psalms a wild chorus of house sparrows chirped outside the church. This blend of strange, unplanned harmonies and rhythms — chant and chirp — made me think of St. Maximus the Confessor’s description of man as “priest of nature.” We give intelligent voice, in praise and thanksgiving to the Creator, on behalf of all creation. I thought of Romans 12:1 and its description of our priestly action as “rational worship” (logikēn latreian). We alone of all creatures on earth can clothe our worship in language and so echo back to God the Word He spoke in the beginning. In us, “let there be” becomes “let it be.” Genesis 1:3 becomes Luke 1:38. Light becomes life. The Word spoken in the beginning is made flesh in the fullness of time.

I also thought of the preface to the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer (in the Mass):

And so, in your presence are countless hosts of Angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy…

If we are thus attentive throughout our days of work and rest, all that we hear, see, touch, taste and smell is brought into the temple of our bodies and readied as material for the Great Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered, co-mingled with the bread, wine and alms to be lifted aloft to the Creator. Readied for Consecration by our daily prayer, by our daily acts of virtue, by our daily repentance. By our “prayers, works, joys and sufferings.” The world that I take in every day has the potential to be re-created, redeemed within me precisely because I am a dwelling place of God, a locus of sacrificial offering, a nexus of eternity and time ambling about on this tiny plot of land floating in a vast universe. In us, when we live life thus, God casts fire into all things. In us the cosmos becomes one great burning bush afire with divine love, co-extensive with the Risen Body of Jesus.

“Full, conscious and active participation” in liturgy is the labor of logikēn latreianan action of our common priesthood that stitches together heaven and earth in Christ in each moment we live the act of bodily offering. This participation at Mass means not primarily that we join in the singing, movements and responses of the Mass (though it is that), but that we fully engage the priesthood of Jesus that we are at every moment of our lives, bringing it to perfection in the Holy Mass.

I went to bed last night with my screened window and curtain open. No car sounds, no outdoor lighting. Just stars, crickets, a catbird at sunset, a lonely nighthawk at 3:15 a.m. when I awoke for Vigils, a steady breeze from the northwest that whispered through the mesh of the screen. I asked St. Elijah to pray for me to listen to the Voice.

And I could smell the white pine sap. They must have pruned.

I rose for Vigils at 3:15 a.m. Dark. Quiet split the night. One spotlight shone down from the high ceiling above the lectern. And the flame of the sanctuary lamp flickered. No organ, just human voices. And that nighthawk. Psalms were a cappella, recto tono. Echoing softly in the stone church. Slight dissonances in their voices drew me in. An aging community of men, and many of the monks are bent over, using a cane or walker. If I were called to be a monk, I would be a Trappist. How many thousands of times these men have entered the Abbey church before dawn to sanctify the night with the divine Word? The church, unadorned, rough, real, breathed their prayer in and out.

Or so it seemed.

The Guest Master told me today the architect back in the 1800’s who inspired this Abbey’s neo-Gothic architecture once said, “The severity of Christian architecture is opposed to all deception. We should never make a building erected to God appear better than it is by artificial means. It is better to do a little substantially and consistently with the truth, than to produce a great but fictitious effect.” That’s it! That’s why I love Trappist monasteries as my place of retreat from the world, because my retreat is not from, but into reality. It’s why I leave every retreat with them more ready for life in the world. A retreat is poor, artificial, fictitious, un-truthful when it makes you dread returning to life. When I end my days at these retreats I feel sent. I come fleeing but return running.

So many reasons this space inspires this in me. But today what struck me was this. These men, they are poor, live so simply, unpretentiously in their manner of living. There is no ego-fest allowed, no cult of personality. Me is always inverted to We. A Guest Master several years ago told me that those few Trappists who may have become well-known outside the monastery for their work, like Merton or Pennington, in the monastery wear the same habit, chant the same psalms, obey the same rule, engage in the same labor as all others. Monastic life levels for the sake of charity, unity, the common good. Yet when I go to confession to a monk, the color of the personalty is rich, as is the depth and profundity of what I receive! 30 years of going to Trappist monasteries around the country, I have found more healing balm here than anywhere else as they school me each retreat in the self-renunciation of love — the supreme recipe for healing.

All of this is a marvelous critique of portions of our American ecclesial culture.

A time ago, the Guest Master shared with me at my request his vocation story. Remarkable. This point he made caught me: “When I entered here years ago, I was filled with consolations. On a sustained God-high. It was all so wonderful and necessary to secure my vocation. But the day I professed my solemn vows — the day — it all vanished. The Abbot, so wise, said to me: ‘God has removed those consolations from you so that those who come here weary from the world might find refreshment. This is the heart of our monastic vocation, to live Philippians 2:5-11. Christ emptied Himself to fill us, He calls us to empty ourselves to fill others.’ Once I saw this, I was grateful to know this was my vocation. It was easy to bear.”

The Guest Master then said to me, “Your being a husband and a father is the same. The same exchange.”

!

Today’s readings at Mass, amazingly, contained this line from 2 Cor. 8:9:

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Love, love, love

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. — Catechism of the Catholic Church

I don’t have much time to seriously write, but I had to share this.

First, tomorrow is the solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. It is a “dogmatic feast,” celebrating the epicenter of Christian faith that was fully disclosed in the mysteries of Holy Week and Easter season. God is three Persons, one God. Three whos and one what, as they used to say in the old catechism. A mystery, meaning not a puzzle to be solved or an illogical assertion to be blindly accepted, but a truth so excessive that the mind is always surpassed when that truth is revealed. Like Niagara Falls. But because we are made in His image, we are able, in an infinite trajectory of growth, to know that mystery. And divine mystery, who God is, can only be made known by God. God must freely choose to make Himself known. Mystery cannot be deduced, only encountered and received. And in the mystery of the Trinity, the Son reveals the Father who sent Him, and the Spirit reveals the Son who sent Him.

Here’s what’s most amazing to me: the concrete circumstances in which God revealed Himself.

The eternal Son of the Father was fully revealed in His death, resurrection and ascension, and the Spirit was made known last Sunday at Pentecost. The mystery of God was disclosed under the form of self-emptying Gift. Divine mystery was made known not as an abstract theorem that we can contemplate and analyze at a safe distance, but was revealed to us fully immersed in the total mess and majesty of human life. In Jesus. In fact, we can say that the pinpoint laser of divine revelation took place in the stripped naked, brutalized, fly-covered body of the eternal Word who, from the cross, spoke to His Father of us and breathed out His Spirit on us as He died.

Faint.

When some asks, “What is God like?”, the Christian points wordlessly to the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) and says, “Like that.” St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, looking at the cross, cried out in prayer: O mes Trois! “O my Three!” See, the Father handing over His Son, and receiving the Son’s self-offering for us through the eternal Spirit. God with us. God for us.

I met a priest very recently, whom I will write more about another time. He graciously gave me permission to share his story that he confided to me. In short, he suffered for several years from a series of terrible illnesses, from which he has now fully recovered. During those years, he said, he passed through what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the spirit.” He said,

During those years as I was physically debilitated, God chose to pass my soul through His love. I don’t know how else to say it. I can testify to you under solemn oath that God is a consuming fire. I know it with absolute certitude. It’s impossible to describe. The love, that is. His love. So selfless. Selfless in a way we cannot even imagine. Honestly. Not even imagine. On the cross He suffered our loveless, wretched, hateful, apathetic, bored, egocentric cruelty with absolute love that caused Him suffering we could never imagine. He showed me just a flicker of the furnace He is, larger than the universe, and asked me to allow Him to transform me to become that flicker. That is the Trinity. The infinite furnace of selfless love. So tender and pure. I can tell you, even though I really can’t because it’s beyond any word, that the Trinity is simply this: total, pure, selfless, infinite loving. A verb of loving, not a noun. Everywhere you go in creation, you can’t escape it. Everything is filled with that love. But because we are petty and small and selfish and consumed with ourselves, we can’t see it or feel it. But if we allow just a flicker of His love to purify this, we would see. You can’t imagine, Tom. We would be happy for every hardship and suffering and challenge of life, because they allow us to become that love even more. I tell my brother priests when they have hard times or illness, this is a gift, let God use it. When God draws you into Himself, it’s total selflessness. Love, love, love. I wish I could put into that word “love” the meaning I experienced in those years. I’m almost afraid to use it for fear of cheapening it. I want to say: No! You don’t understand. You have to know it first hand.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” — 1 Cor 6:19

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Happy Pentecost! A special shout-out to Thom and Heather Jordan on this nearly 20-year anniversary of their Profession of Faith, Confirmation and First Communion, from their sponsors who love them and think they and their family all rock. Isn’t it awesome that our Catholic Church is spread over so much territory? Plenty of breathing room for charity to grow.

Okay…

Today the Paschal Mystery comes to a wrap as the power of the dead and risen Jesus falls down from the Father and explodes in Jerusalem to make the whole cosmos into a City of God.

The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onward. The Holy Spirit with His gifts guides the Church. You cannot understand the Church of Jesus without this Paraclete, whom the Lord sends us for this very reason. And He makes unthinkable possible, the unimaginable imaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates [aggiornamento] the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going. And we Christians must ask the Lord for the grace of docility to the Holy Spirit. Docility in this Spirit, who speaks to us in our heart, who speaks to us in all of life’s circumstances, who speaks to us in the Church’s life, in Christian communities, who is always speaking to us.” — Pope Francis

Back in 1987 I went through a “Life in the Spirit” seminar and was prayed over for an unleashing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was powerful for me at what was really the beginning of my faith journey. I did not experience the gift of tongues or words of knowledge or other charismatic gifts often hailed by both Pentecostals and Catholics in the Charismatic Renewal as premier signs of “baptism in the Spirit.”  What I did experience, though, was a very intense and sustained awareness of what is often called the “indwelling” of the Spirit (cf 1 Cor. 6:19). In fact, I remember when one of the members of the prayer group I had joined quoted St. Augustine, I thought to myself, “That’s exactly  it!” He told me Augustine said, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” [Actually what Augustine really said is even more lovely and poetic in Latin and English: Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, “Higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”]

God is more interior, “closer” to my innermost self precisely because He communicates to my “self” existence at every second. God is “beneath me,” the “ground of my being,” as the Rhineland theologians of the 15th century loved to say. But God is also insanely close to us because He desires to unite Him-self with our-self. Not united at the superficial levels of our consciousness, but at the source, the core, the origin of who “I” am, the personal spring from which my deepest identity emerges. In other words, God wishes to get dangerously close to my heart, to what makes me who I am as an absolutely unique individual person; to the place where I am stripped of all pretense and deception and empty show and defense mechanisms. There, in that most intimate and supremely vulnerable space within me, where I am “naked,” God wishes to gain entry to become one with me, opening His Heart and Person just as unreservedly to me as He asks me to open to Him.

Whoa.

After that personal experience of the Spirit’s indwelling, of a heightened awareness of my body being His temple, I suddenly became more aware of my words and actions as being done in the presence of God. I developed what I might call an acute case of “holy fear of the Lord,” i.e. a tremendous sense of reverence, awe, fear of offending God who dwelt within. Fear of “grieving the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). That holy fear has never left me in 30 years. In fact, my resolution to give up cussing permanently after my initial conversion experience in 1987 was sealed by this new awareness. I had developed a very foul mouth when I was 13 or so, but after my conversion experience I instinctively knew I had to stop though no one had asked me to.

While I am making this point, let me share a very personal grace I received from the Spirit in that regard six years ago. As I have a bad memory these days, so I cannot recall if I have ever shared it here.

Although I had given up cussing in 1987, and was almost 100% effective in keeping my commitment in the subsequent years, inside of me there was a sewer of language that assailed me night and day. All of the memories and habits of a childhood surrounded by cursing, and years of practicing it with abandon, remained in me. It was especially bad when I would pray. But, at the encouragement of my spiritual director, I had long ago accepted it as a lifelong penance for my sins and the sins of others, and I tried to make the best of it.

In 2011 I went to Confession to a priest who was, by chance, also an exorcist. I had never met him before this. I never mentioned to him my inner struggle with vulgarity, but he himself brought it up — which was a bit disconcerting. Just after absolution he put a crucifix on my head and prayed something like this: “Lord, you know your son here has long struggled with the spirit of blasphemy. And he has been faithful. And now you wish to free him from this so he can worship you in purity of mind and heart.” Later that day, I immediately thought of Exodus 7:16.

It was absolutely astonishing, and I could never explain to anyone what happened with adequate clarity. But I can say that from that moment on, till this day, I have never again been assailed in my mind by vulgarity. While I can call to mind curse words at will, they never present themselves to me. I knew immediately, as soon as he finished praying, that it was gone. I told him so, and he said: “The Lord, the Spirit of freedom, wanted you to first struggle all those years to make you ready to receive this grace. Otherwise it would not be your own, be part of you.” He added, “You know that vulgar and blasphemous words, especially the f-word, are the lingua franca of the demons in an exorcism. Just think of the one time you hear of a disciple using curses — St Peter denying Jesus [Matt. 26:74]. A good sign that Christians should avoid them. A salty word is fine to spice things up now and again, but perverse and blasphemous language that offends God and human dignity are not. We live in a very vulgar culture, which is a symptom of spiritual decay. God wishes Christians to be signs of contradiction that remind the world that we will be judged one day by the way we used the gift of language God gave us to resemble His Word. Go in peace, son.”

O Spirit of Freedom, Spirit who makes of my body your temple, come and abide with me forever. Give me the mind and heart of Jesus and make His prayer my own: “Abba! Father!” Amen.

“Without Sunday, we cannot…”

[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:

One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.

To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.

It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.

So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.

And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.

If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.

And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!

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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:

It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.

I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.

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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:

When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.

When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.

What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.

That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!

I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]

Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.

Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift:

“They are fathers” — Pope St. Gregory the Great

I will not post again until next weekend as this is exam week, graduation week.

Today, “Shepherd Sunday,” is also the world day of prayer for vocations. Per the United States Bishops:

The purpose of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations is to publically fulfill the Lord’s instruction to, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2). As a climax to a prayer that is continually offered throughout the Church, it affirms the primacy of faith and grace in all that concerns vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life. While appreciating all vocations, the Church concentrates its attention this day on vocations to the ordained ministries (priesthood and diaconate), to the Religious life in all its forms (male and female, contemplative and apostolic), to societies of apostolic life, to secular institutes in their diversity of services and membership, and to the missionary life, in the particular sense of mission “ad gentes”.

We pray God raise up men and women to serve in these various states of life and ecclesial movements that serve a pivotal role in teaching, governing and sanctifying God’s People.

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Let me share a very simple anecdote that gives evidence of my immense gratitude for countless shepherds who have shown me and my family the way.

Several years ago, my youngest daughter was asked at the last minute to serve at Mass in a new capacity she had never been trained for. She was completely overcome with fear and tears, though I was unaware of all this as it happened across the church from where I was sitting. I suddenly noticed her sitting over in a pew wiping tears from her eyes, but before I could even get up the parochial vicar walked right over to her and knelt down next to her. She started to smile and he led her back to the sacristy. My heart was full and my eyes welled up. She came out for Mass fully confident and did very well. Later, when I asked her what happened, she said (after she told me what they asked her to do): “Father’s so nice. He made me feel better and showed me what to do.”

And she did it. She’s forgotten his homily from that day, but that encounter she still remembers.

Great summary of priestly ministry as an icon of the tenderness of Christ, whose love strengthens the weak and frightened, leading them to courageously walk in the way of God. For, as Pope Francis said recently:

Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.

Let me end with two meditations on priestly leadership for this Good Shepherd Sunday, both taken from Popes.

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Many when they receive a position of ruling (i.e. priest) are on fire to tear their subjects to pieces. They demonstrate the terror of authority, and harm those they ought to assist. Because they have no love in their hearts, they are eager to appear to be masters, and fail to recall they are fathers. They change from a position of humility to one of pride and dominance; if they flatter outwardly on occasion, inwardly they rage. Truth says of them elsewhere: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” — Pope Gregory the Great, Homily on Luke 10:1-7

The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance. The symbol of the lamb also has a deeper meaning. In the Ancient Near East, it was customary for kings to style themselves shepherds of their people. This was an image of their power, a cynical image: to them their subjects were like sheep, which the shepherd could dispose of as he wished. When the shepherd of all humanity, the living God, himself became a lamb, he stood on the side of the lambs, with those who are downtrodden and killed. This is how he reveals himself to be the true shepherd: “I am the Good Shepherd . . . I lay down my life for the sheep”, Jesus says of himself (Jn 10:14f). It is not power, but love that redeems us! This is God’s sign: he himself is love. How often we wish that God would make show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world. All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity. We suffer on account of God’s patience. And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.

One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. “Feed my sheep”, says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another. — Pope Benedict XVI