The One who answers the cry

[Jesus said,] because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you (John 16:6-7).

The sense of divine absence, of God being silent, inactive, distant, opaque as we face the trials that life brings our way … Any person of faith who has journeyed long enough has felt this. How do you face it? How do you pray in it? I think of St. Augustine’s musing on this:

Who would choose troubles and hardships? You command us to endure them, but not to love them. No-one loves what he has to endure, even if he loves the endurance, for although he may rejoice in his power to endure, he would prefer to have nothing that demands endurance. In adverse circumstances I long for prosperity, and in times of prosperity I dread adversity. What middle ground is there, between these two, where human life might be free from trial? Woe betide worldly prosperity, and woe again, from fear of disaster and evanescent joy! But woe, woe, and woe again upon worldly adversity, from envy of better fortune, the hardship of adversity itself, and the fear that endurance may falter. Is not human life on earth a time of testing without respite?

On your exceedingly great mercy, and on that alone, rests all my hope.

During the two years I spent reading endless commentaries on St John of the Cross’ writings for my dissertation, I wrote this line: “We very naturally long for the awareness of God’s presence, for a sense of inner fullness, and so desire to be filled with divine light always. Yet, faith is no such thing. St. John is quite unambiguous that, in this life, it is God’s felt absence, faith’s entry into the divine darkness that is the greater form of encounter with His presence. This insight from John floored me today: Absence is God’s presence under the form of yearning. For John, it is hunger and thirst, panting and yearning alone that stretch our capacity to receive the One who ever-exceeds our capacity and calls us into the deeper.”

Again, I think of Augustine:

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Then I thought: During the Mass, the moment when the priest begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine to transform them into the Risen Christ is called the epiclesis, which in Greek means “to cry out to.” Not to ask calmly, dispassionately, as if for some nice addition to life. No! To recognize what we seek is required for life itself, for any and all good things.

Epiclesis! Such a priestly prayer, which is for all of us to pray always in the “liturgy of life,” to me resembles hungry baby birds in the nest begging, stretching, pleading, clamoring desperately when the parent comes with food. Not because they don’t believe the parent wishes to feed them, but because they believe she does. But there’s more here. It was Jean Vanier who, years ago, made for me the astonishing link between this Greek word for the human cry to God (epiclesisand the Greek word Jesus uses to name the coming-Spirit, the Paraclete. Both words contain the verb kalein, “to call/cry out.” As Vanier says,

The cry for communion in the poor and the broken makes us touch our own inner pain. We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us, which have gradually been formed during our childhood to save us from inner pain. These barriers prevent us from being present to others, in communion with others; they incite us to compete and to dominate others. It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God. And then we meet the “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send us. The word “paracleta” means “the one who answers the cry.”

The Paraclete, then, is the presence of God under the form of epiclesis, crying out, yearning. My God!

In the Mass, the Paraclete comes and transubstantiates a bit of food and drink into the New Creation, which is itself the answer to every human cry for justice, mercy, peace, love, life… It is this form of Presence, effected by the meeting of cry-and-Answer, that we call Real in the Holy Eucharist, the Medicine of Immortality given to us by our crucified and risen God-with-us. He, the One who cried out from the Cross, is the One who, in the words of St. Maximus, “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.”

And those of us who dare to consume this Food and Drink, receiving the Answer, consent to become “one who answers the cry.”

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. — Matt. 25:35-36

Remembering God with God

Psalm 77 is remarkable for its daring honesty with God, as the psalmist wonders how the catastrophe Israel is facing in his time can be reconciled with the memory of the God of the covenant whose faithful mercy once led them out of the land of Egypt. O God of the Exodus, where are you now?

As a faithful Jew, when one wishes to turn to God for help one remembers. The Jewish conception of memory (zikaron) is remarkably different from how we think of memory now, and defines our Christian understanding of liturgy (the Mass especially). Jews believe that when God’s covenanted people remember, with faith and trust, God’s “wonderful works” from the past, the same saving power of those works is renewed in the present. It’s as if God opens up life-giving fountains at definite points in history, to which all future times must return, through memory, if they wish to drink of that life.

Liturgy is nothing more than this life-giving memory that opens a fresh fountain here and now.

For Jews, the fountain of fountains is the memory of the greatest of God’s wonderful works, the Passover-Exodus when God rescued His people from slavery and brought them into the Land of Promise. For Christians, the fountain of fountains is the New Passover-Exodus, the open side (John 19:34) of our dying and rising God, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ Passover, God rescued all of humanity and all of creation from the slavery of sin and death (Rom. 8:18-30). And (amazing amazing) in Jesus, who is God and Man, the remembering of God’s wonderful works by His people becomes one and the same. You see, at the Last Supper, Jesus remembers the Exodus event both as the God who wrought it and as a Jew who remembers and is rescued by it — and at that moment of memory the whole of creation is suffused with (transubstantiated by!) God’s rescue, beginning with a bit of bread and wine … that we dare to eat and drink.

OMG.

In Psalm 77, the author cries aloud to God (hear, yells heavenward in desperation) in a time of great hardship, returning in memory to the fountain of the “deeds and wonders of the Lord” in the Exodus. He faces with radical honesty the fact that the present reality does not align with the power and beauty of God’s past rescuing mercy. He wonders if this means “the way of the Most High has changed”? That’s daring for a Jew! But instead of ending in doubt, skepticism or despair, he does what every faithful Jew does in the face of this dissonance: he liturgizes, he remembers God’s past invasion of history with mercy, and he overwhelms the present with his vehement, trusting, pleading memory of God’s past saving actions. “O God, remember your past mercies, wonders, deeds and do it all again, now, here!”

That is prayer, that is liturgy, that is the Jewish and Christian response to every present suffering, evil, catastrophe: to remember God’s faithful love, His endless mercies, invoking them on the present in prayer and then consenting to allow God to renew them in the present through, with and in us (and not just for us), Especially as we eat and drink in order to become God’s rescue in the world.

“Do this in memory of me” means something very different thought of this way, does it not? Notice it in the Mass next time, memory language saturates its language. It also gives the definition of prayer as “remembering God” a whole new depth of meaning — not a generic memory, but the memory of God’s corpse hanging on a Tree, God descending into Hell and God rising from the Tomb to re-member us into life. Even now.

So let me invite you to pray this psalm with me. First, pray it as a Jew, and then to pray it with Christ who prayed this psalm and remembered with us and for us; and thereby watered all of creation with His unchanging mercy. And then listen to a marvelous musical rendition of this psalm….

I cry aloud to God,
cry aloud to God that he may hear me.

In the day of my distress I sought the Lord.
My hands were raised at night without ceasing;
my soul refused to be consoled.
I remembered my God and I groaned.
I pondered and my spirit fainted.

You withheld sleep from my eyes.
I was troubled, I could not speak.
I thought of the days of long ago
and remembered the years long past.
At night I mused within my heart.
I pondered and my spirit questioned.

I said, “Will the Lord reject us for ever?
Will he show us his favor no more?
Has his love vanished for ever?
Has his promise come to an end?
Does God forget his mercy
or in anger withhold his compassion?”

I said: “This is what causes my grief;
that the way of the Most High has changed.”

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old,
I muse on all your works
and ponder your mighty deeds.

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders.
You showed your power among the peoples.
Your strong arm redeemed your people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and trembled;
the depths were moved with terror.
The clouds poured down rain,
the skies sent forth their voice;
your arrows flashed to and fro.

Your thunder rolled round the sky,
your flashes lighted up the world.
The earth was moved and trembled
when your way led through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters
and no one saw your footprints.

You guided your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Baptism is the source of being

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[Pardon the length, and the fact that so much of my work of late has become a variation on one theme. But is has captured my soul!]

Incorporation into Christ through faith and Baptism is the source of being a Christian in the mystery of the Church. In Christ who died and rose from the dead, the baptized become a “new creation”, washed clean from sin and brought to life through grace. — St. John Paul II

The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God. ― Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar

Someone said to me the other evening that because he was not able to go to daily Mass that day  — he had some especially intense family and work commitments — he felt “spiritually empty and sad.” When I asked him why he said, “Because I didn’t get my daily dose of grace.”

Now, I am a huge proponent and practitioner of daily Mass and am convinced it offers immense benefits for one’s life. And I wish more people struggled with his issue! But…

I think that sometimes Catholics can “externalize” the sources of grace God has entrusted to us and imagine that the sacramental life is more like getting a “fill” at the gas station and less like the progressive unsealing of the fountain of life that upwells deep within.

When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I made hundreds of pages of notes on everything I read. I would like to share a particular entry relevant to this gentleman’s spiritual struggle. When I wrote this entry in 2006, I had just read an article on the striking absence in St. John’s works of any significant mention of the role of the Eucharist in the mystical life. I wrote [slightly edited with new insights]:

In the context of the Council of Trent’s massive emphasis on the role of the Sacraments and Holy Mass in Christian piety, John’s near silence is really striking. Certainly different from Teresa. But it is very much in keeping with strands of medieval mystical traditions. What’s clear is that John is eminently interested in the cultivation of what has already been received in Baptism, and Baptism’s seal, Confirmation. John’s whole vision is built on this premise: because of Baptism, the Kingdom of God is within awaiting our permission to wage ‘bellum caritate’ [the battle of love] and render us conquered and capable of divine love. For John, the life of grace inaugurated in Baptism incites God’s revolution.

Baptism is the key salvation event when the Sower planted in my soul a seed of divine life, poised to germinate and grow into a massive “Tree of Life” that fills heaven and earth with its healing leaves and life-giving fruit. Baptism opened up in my soul a fountain of living water, welling up with the eternally proceeding Spirit. Baptism renovated my body into a Temple of the Trinity — St. Paul says my body is a naos, the Holy of Holies (1 Cor. 6:19; Gal. 2:20!). Baptism knitted me to all of the baptized as a single Body in which the divine Glory has chosen to abide forever. Baptism infused into my soul the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity that make finite-me “capable of God.” Baptism gave me a share in Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the end-game being the conquest of sin and death in me. Baptism gave me re-birth, making me a child of God whose vantage and privileges are those of the Son of God. Baptism marked me indelibly with Christ’s priesthood, empowering me to co-offer my body with His to the Father, on behalf of all and for all. Baptism empowered me to love others with the very love of the crucified God Himself. Baptism made of me a new creation, an outpost of the coming Kingdom established behind enemy lines, to commence the making new of all things with the newness of the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

These are simply a few of the effects of Baptism. All of this I bear  within me, when I run in the way of His commands.

« Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God » – St. Leo the Great

Take my breath away.

All other Sacraments flow from, perfect and flow back to Baptism. It is the primal Sacrament that makes of each Christian a microcosm and mediator, revealing our interior life to be the goal of the journey. My heart is the nexus of matter and spirit. In each of us the whole of creation is redeemed, if we permit it to be. Fiat lux, fiat mihi. Even the Holy Eucharist, the consummation, source and summit of Christian life, has as its telos, its goal my interior life: “Take, eat; take, drink.” Proclamation is toward hearing, consecration is ordered toward consumption, Eucharistic ingestion toward interiority. At Mass, even my sacrificial Oblation, with the heart’s upward turn (sursum corda!), offers Heaven the fuelwood I have gathered from Earth within my heart. When we receive the Eucharist, we consume Fire, and when we exit Church — Ite, missa est! — we are to exhale the Fire within.

The whole mystery of the divine economy is already fully present within us, awaiting our Yes to receive and expend its riches on the world.

It wasn’t lost on John that his experience of “transforming union” with Jesus during the brutal nine months he spent in prison took place while he was deprived of the Sacraments, as he lived under an ex-communication imposed by his own religious Order. Unable to celebrate or attend Mass, receive sacramental Confession. All he had was the Fire within, kindled by Baptism. In him was the City of God, “whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9). John allowed the massive mystery of Baptismal grace to unleash the Refiner’s Fire, removing all in him that prevented a union in love with Christ.

Holy Orders exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within the faithful the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism. Holy Matrimony exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within a man and woman the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism, so they might, with Fires entwined, co-consecrate the world to God and lead it in its journey back to the Marriage Feast of Eden.

In the first centuries of Christianity, daily Mass only very slowly evolved as a practice — largely in monastic contexts. Sunday was understood to be the central Eucharistic event of the week. The six other days of prayers-works-joys-sufferings in the world were for gathering the material (bread, wine, alms) for the Holy Sacrifice on the Eighth Day.

So if you cannot make daily Mass because you are attending to the vocational demands of life (that flow from Baptism), remember you are far from empty. My God. Within you rages the everlasting Flame, the entire mystery of heaven and earth, of grace and nature, of God and man. Be attentive and give thanks that such exalted celestial Treasures have been emptied into such lowly earthen vessels.

Let me (again) conclude with Audrey Assad’s wonderful allegory of the journey of Christian life. Beginning with Baptism (in which we acquire the divine Fire and are wedded to Christ), the Bride, dressed in her white baptismal gown, walks with fierce intent toward the Kingdom through the trials and temptations that threaten to distract her from the ultimate End. Having reached the end of the journey in death, the faithful Christian, entering the spacious Land of Promise, in a final act of oblation casts the divine Fire on the all the material she has gathered throughout her life and offers it up into the new creation (1 Cor. 3:12-16!).

Parents and Godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. She is to walk always as a child of the light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in in her heart. When the Lord comes, may she go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. – Rite of Baptism for Children, §100

When American poet Robert Frost was in his 60’s and was asked to reflect on his life, he responded:

I am no longer concerned with good and evil. What concerns me is whether my offering will be acceptable.

“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.