God likes stories

God as an Architect, 1794 by William Blake

Why did God create mankind? Because God likes stories. — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

This past weekend I gave a retreat for adults preparing for sacramental reception into the Catholic Church. It was a great blessing and very humbling to be among such passionate seekers. The retreat ended with the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which I thought was an especially powerful crescendo. Afterwards, one of the participants in the retreat said to me something like this,

The images and stories you shared with us brought the Mass so alive for me that I wanted to shout out to everyone else around me, ‘Do you see what I see?’ Especially at the Consecration of the Host, all your words about the crazy love God has for us, and all the amazing people you told us about, seemed to flash out of the Host. It all made new sense to me. It was so cool. I actually wish Father Ray could have just stopped and held the Host up for a really long time so we could take it all in. It so in my face that Jesus is the center of absolutely everything Catholics are about.

I sat in a coffee shop the next day and prayerfully thought about her words, and her sincerity. How incredibly important storytelling is for internalizing the faith, precisely because it translates abstract ideas into the concrete and narrative shape of human life. Stories put skin and bones on the truths of faith, wrap them in imagination and embed themselves deeply in our memories. Life is lived not in the form of precepts, bullet points or concepts, but in the form of a constantly unfolding story. Once God spoke creation into existence in the beginning, a never-ending story was born; and He remains the primary Storyteller. It’s His pedagogy, and I have tried mightily to imitate it in my own.

I also thought, the Incarnation is the premier sign of God’s irrepressible penchant for storytelling, and of His desire to elicit our gifts in co-scripting history’s epic drama. Jesus, God and Man, is the story of God; exegete of the Father (John 1:18 uses the Greek verb exēgēsato). It makes so much sense that Jesus, Word-made-flesh, was a master storyteller who wove eternity into the fabric of time through His metaphors, analogies, parables. And even more by His very short life, His death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, and His glorious coming at the end of history. Jesus of Nazareth is the defining narrative by which the entire history of the cosmos is to be rightly understood, the final word on man’s dark story of sin and death. Jesus is the theo-drama, i.e. the story of God in search of man.

Then I thought — with copious awe — this Story has at its heart the crucifixion of God-with-us which, well, says volumes about what we are to expect as creation follows Him toward the re-creating resurrection. Per crucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light.” The new creation passes by way of an economy of repentant humility and surrendering trust in the Father’s will to deliver us from every evil by drawing from evil definitive, imperishable good stored up for us in heaven.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Even more, beginning with Baptism, and then in all of the Church’s Sacraments (which you might say are the mystical narration of this theo-drama), we who believe in this Story plunge headlong into the Spirit of the dying and rising God, who cries out within us, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15) — “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20). Think of the Mass this way, with the Words of Institution in the Mystical Supper pulsing at its heart, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it…Take this, all of you, and drink from it it.”

In the Mass, that paschal narrative transubstantiates the whole world into food and drink, because our God is a God who fills the hungry with good things. Which is why our judgment will be based on feeding and drinking (Matt. 25:35). Credo.

💥

My God. My simple act of trusting faith every day, my feeble “let it be,” my whispered “Amen” to this theo-drama is what all of creation waits on, is what speaks Light into the darkness again and again and again. And the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is where it all finds its perfect completion. This is the vocation of the Church in the world. May every human being come to know and believe in this majestic dignity and hope that is theirs in Christ.

After thinking on all of this, I thought of a powerful skit I have posted here before that dramatizes the whole Story from creation to redemption, watching it again with fresh eyes.

David’s Wavering Worship

thewinedarksea.com

[This will be my last post till this weekend, likely]

I wrote this poem sometime before 2008 after attending Mass with a friend who was dying of ALS. A man of deep faith. He sat in a wheelchair in front of our family, moving awkwardly and clearly was in pain. At the Consecration, I looked at the elevated Host which, from my vantage, was just over his right shoulder. The priest’s hand was wavering, so the Host moved during those seconds. Swayed with this man, it seemed, as if they were moving together. One sacrifice. Later in the Mass the priest brought him Communion, which he struggled to receive, awkwardly moving with the Host as the priest followed him until he ingested Him.

That night I wrote this poem.

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David’s Wavering Worship
Rough-hewn, splintered wood gathered
as kindle for a mighty Flame
’round which we whirl unchained wild
like royal David of dancing fame.
For me it is certain (though dimly seen)
there was a Fiery Divine-human yearning
with raging-hunger on his blistered tongue
pining, writhing to taste impossible Love
in Passover mystery, living Memory sung
singing downward from High Above
through the steaming Blood of Adonai, arising.
Wheat crushed, ground-divinity chewed
for God is Bread, immortal Love-made-Food,
bitter herbs with all sweetness endued.
Metabolized in one Body, one Flesh co-dying
expiring, a consecrating desecrated Corpse all-Holy
risen now Most High in glory, a Father’s Only Own
become our Food of freedom, us setting free
to love like Bloodied water outpoured, wastefully:
God who reigns, Beauty blessing from the cursèd Tree.

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And for whatever reason, that night, this song was playing in my head as I thought of him, Him together at that morning Mass.

Frittered away by detail

thelaratouch.com

[this is the post I mistakenly posted the other day before it was edited. I had been cobbling it together over a month’s time. Hope it is useful.]

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau

My New Year’s Resolution is to cut away all the fat, all the excess, all the frivolous or directionless investments of time and energy that distract me from what is essential, and from those who are essential in my life. I have a short, doable list of specifics, but that’s the general theme. And, like salvation, this resolve is not a once-saved-always-saved decision, but one that requires a daily renewal of vows.

Fulton Sheen once said that rivers are only strong and deep when they have sharp and firm borders that define their course with purpose. The Desert Fathers argue that among the greatest obstacles to progress in spiritual maturity is “dissipation,” the helter-skelter life. For the Fathers, the endless flitting from thing to thing without sustained attention, without a defined purpose that serves worthy goals, chokes off the virtues of temperance, fortitude and patient endurance. The dissipated may do many good things, but few of them well, none with consistency, and all absent of the ability to build that virtue that alone carries you from good to saint, perseverance.

Early last Fall, I was being pressed against the wall of my limits and knew I needed to reassess my commitments. I re-connected with an old friend I always go to when I want unvarnished honesty from someone who knows me too well, and who understands the challenges of balancing marriage, raising children, work and the rest of life. People like that in your life are gold.

Among other things, he encouraged me to engage in a week-long time audit. He said, “My father used to always say, if you want to know a man’s priorities, follow the check ledger and follow the clock. Where your time is, there is your treasure, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He added that in his experience people tend to be the most defensive when you question their use of time or their money spending habits, “because everyone knows by instinct both lay naked your real priorities.”

He jotted down a list for me on a napkin and asked me to see how I fared in investing my time into these 9 categories: focused time for prayer, focused time with spouse, focused time with children, exercise, eating with others, eating alone, personal leisure, work, sleep. He also required a separate spread sheet for me to examine the time (how much and when) I spent looking at any screens and the purpose of viewing.

Let’s just say, though carrying out the audit was challenging (a lot of work!), the results were eye-popping on all fronts. But the beauty of an audit is it eliminates all space for rationalizing distortions of how I in fact spend my time and allowed me to come up with a plan that addressed concrete issues. And some of the changes I have made have already yielded peace in my life and my family’s life.

We often think of peace as that “oceanic” feeling of tranquility when we feel good about life and have no angst or cares. However, St. Augustine defines peace as tranquillitas ordinis, “the tranquility of order,” and by order he means a life intentionally organized around the demands of justice and charity. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.”

Peace requires that you bring an order to your world that begins with ensuring you are being faithful to your primary life commitments in a sustained and enduring way. This requires simplicity. Simplicity does not mean a mere absence of “stuff” in your life, as much as it evidences a unity of focus, i.e. living so everything conspires toward the service of your primary commitments. This form of simplicity requires a resolve based not just on passing feelings, but on lasting virtues. Which means it takes hard work.

As my oldest son once said when he was 4 years old, repeating the proverb he mistakenly thought my wife had been saying all his life, “I know, mom, patience will hurt you.”

Only a well-ordered life allows for genuine spontaneity, opens an authentic space of freedom for the Spirit to blow where He wills — which is always in the context of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). Those who live by emotional whim, who justify disorder by referring to what God has supposedly “placed on my heart,” ignoring the presiding role of good judgment and the necessity of exercising the hard virtues, don’t experience spontaneity. Rather, they live in disorder constructed around personal preference dressed in religious garb. And it is my experience that these ’emo-gnostics,’ more often than not, cause others who rely on them to suffer far more from the effects of their canonized egoism than they do themselves. But they often don’t notice these casualties, as their priorities are built around their own immediate needs which, they believe, God always blesses.

To bring peace into the world you have to take charge of your life, assume responsibility for your use of time, consider your primary commitments, think of how your decisions affect others, act with purpose and intention, plan and assess regularly how you are doing, and establish a relationship of accountability to keep you honest and cover blind spots. This is a marvelous asceticism, a personal discipline that can grow a garden of virtues and benefit many people’s lives around you who depend on you being faithful to first things first. Our life is to be a living liturgy, and if you look at the Church’s liturgy, well, it’s really really well ordered and planned, with intention. It’s what St. Paul calls the offering of logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), which is far better than emotional worship.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship.

One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, voices well my own vivid awareness of the need to intentionally steward my time: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” May 2018 offer a new opportunity for consecrating time to God, of stewarding this most precious gift that comes to us but once and passes through our hands into eternity. May my every moment become a worthy, intentional, just and love-drenched offering. Not much time left, so let’s get to it…

O Lord, you have shown me my end,
how short is the length of my days. — Psalm 39:5

Baptized in Mud

Happy Epiphany of the Lord!

The Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Evangelization asked me to record a brief reflection on tomorrow’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I think they chose that video thumbnail just to humiliate me.:)

So here it is, for what it’s worth.

Quiet posts

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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John 8:1-11

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

Merry Christmas.

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.

O come, O come!

pinimg.com

I gave an Advent parish mission last week. Among the topics I covered, I explored the depth of meaning in a verse we sing so often that we forget what it’s really saying:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This is the plaintive cry of a slave living in exile, begging God to come and liberate. We have a planet filled with such cries, yet without the faith to turn them into prayer. The confident “Rejoice!” of the refrain, filled with certain hope, is only possible when the depth of the plight is fully acknowledged and then brought to God in prayer. Packed into the seemingly placid “O come” is a world of pain, sorrow, hardship, fear, anger, desperation, turned by faith into hope in love that gives wings to prayer.

During the mission, I shared stories of people I have known who have taught me how to pray like this. I shared with them a conversation I had with an Orthodox Rabbi who told me Jews pray not just from the heart, but from the guts; from the depths (Psalm 130). The last prayer of Jesus on the cross was a phōnēn megalēn, a “loud scream” (Mark 15:37), and the next verse says the veil in the Temple was torn. Such prayer rips open heaven.

The word Advent comes from the same Latin root that is found in the Our Father, adveniat regnum tuum, “thy kingdom come.” Advent means, “come!” and so as a season is meant to carve out in us a hunger, thirst, longing, yearning, pining for God to come and save us, rescue us, redeem us, raise us, ransom us. So, I argued, the harder and darker life gets, Christians should more and more become an Advent people “who cry to Him day and night” (Luke 18:7).

And as this season can be hard for many people, Advent is meant to bring to their hardship the brilliance of costly hope gained in deep, sustained and honest prayer to God.

A person followed up the retreat with an email to me saying simply, “Thank you for giving me permission to bring my pain and doubt to God. That’s a new faith for me.” I sent them this lovely version of my second favorite psalm, the brutally honest Psalm 77.

I cry aloud to God
aloud to God and He will hear me
In the day of my troubled soul
I reach out and seek You, Lord
but I can’t feel You

In the night of my pain
darkness falls, questions rage
Have You forsaken?
O God, have You left me all alone?

You keep my eyes from sleep
so troubled I cannot speak a word
I consider the days of old
when I felt Your love and held Your hope
Where have they gone?

In the night of my pain
faith has fled, doubts remain
Have you forsaken?
O God, have You left me all alone?

Your ways, O God
Your ways, O God, are holy
Holy

Your ways, O God
Your ways, O God, are holy
You are holy

My Advent Back-Flip

phonedog.com

This post all about me, so there you have it.

I deactivated my iPhone and have returned to a flip phone for Advent, and from then on.

It’s not a crusade, or some grand protest against smartphones and the like. It was a decision of personal necessity, a recognition of discerned limits.

When my family first got me an iPhone 27 months ago for my birthday, I told them that I had long resisted getting one because I knew myself well enough to know it would be hard for me not to turn it into (1) a portable, total-work-portal and (2) to over-engage my knack for prolixity in communicating with the revolutionary voice-to-text. I give new meaning to the word “hypertext.”

I anticipated I would be tempted, and so it was.

I fought valiantly, devised various schemes for limiting myself, but alas! I was vanquished. I’m intense, and my mind never sleeps. The iPhone, well suited to such a penchant, offered me ever-fresh fodder in steady supply. Good things, indeed, just far too many of them. During our anniversary getaway in October, I realized, after a long and wonderfully deep conversation with my wife, that my mentality — my presence of mind — had become diffused, distracted, doubled by the iPhone. In fact, “doubled” best expressed for me the effect, as the phone had shaped in me a potent bias toward a virtual ‘elsewhere,’ detracting from the concrete world of my immediate daily existence that demands primacy as it contains my primary vocation.

My asceticism in general largely looks like barricade building, as I identify my weaknesses and temptations and then systematically limit their access to preferred suppliers. For me, this works best as, instead of choosing to talk to the devil directly, I just avoid and block my access to his favored haunts. As a friend of mine (who has lived a lot of life) often says, “I can resist everything but temptation.” lol And I usually bring other people into the act, to ensure accountability, as I am too willing to excuse small transgressions until they snowball into sizable ones. I imagine I’m not different than most. My wife is my technology accountability partner, and she has been excellent in keeping me honest, in her typically brutally honest way. Deo gratias.

Yes, I have lost quite a number of wonderful features the iPhone afforded me, which are such gifts; especially group texting, voice-to-text, and easy access to calendar/email. But a week into it, the benefits of flipping have been immediate and wondrous, with some being surprisingly unexpected. If I seem to be exaggerating, I’m not. I’ll name four benefits to give you a taste:

  1. I very quickly experienced a freeing diminishment of those diffusing, distracting and doubling effects, and a rapid re-entry into the slow moving, mundane and concrete world of my immediate daily existence. So much so, that I have had some genuine ‘wow’ moments in seeing my mentality re-center and settle back on the faces and places in front of me. The world has shaded brighter, more colorful, more vivid.
  2. Having lost my GPS, I now have returned to a favorite past-time: reading and memorizing road maps. I found myself this week dazzled at the resurrection of my spacial imagination, realizing I have never really learned Louisiana in my own mind. All I could think of last weekend as I drove to Albany, LA to do a parish mission was Psalm 84:5: “They are happy in whose hearts are the roads to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)!
  3. Now that texting (and emailing limited to my desktop) without voice-to-text is quite an effort, like handwriting, what I text is much more intentional, concise and thought out. I’ve remembered a bit more just how much I appreciate individual words and the labor of writing them. Flip texting (and desktop emailing) also slows down the volume of correspondence massively, which, while I lose out on many good things, has allowed me to re-appreciate simplicity. It has also made me much much more realistic about how many conversations I can (and should) actually sustain.
  4. As the camera-video features are pathetic, I have lost the tendency I had to want to capture, more than simply experience, the world happening around me in real-time. I love taking photos of people and things to treasure and share, but I found the iPhone made me think more and more of life as better captured and shared than experienced raw in the moment without a lens and savored later in conversation and memory.

I share all of this as a personal quest to place digital communications technology in service to my humanity; to my vocation; to my quest to be, as my colleague Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome says so well, “connected toward communion.” I wish to be able to worthily receive the sacrament of the present moment at every moment. I wish to conserve my ability to attend with love, before all else, to my neighbor, to my nigh-bor, the nearby inhabitants of my immediate world that command my attention first and foremost. To receive the grace that’s in my face.

My Advent motto is, Simplify, do or die. Time will tell.

I’ll leave you with 10 additional reasons I, also, preferred the flip. Hopefully they will make you smile.