Carrying, being carried.

[this is a re-post from 2014]

Years ago when I did chaplaincy work in a nursing home in Connecticut, there was a woman named Marge I would visit every weekend and bring Communion to. She was bed ridden, and depressed. Alienated from her children. She said she felt alone and useless, like an unwanted burden. It was so painful to witness, and as a newbie in that world I had no idea how to practically help her.

For the first weeks, I just listened to her. But one day, I felt inspired to share with her a Russian proverb I had learned from some parishioners at my dad’s Orthodox church: “Old age is for prayer.” The Siberian woman who first shared it with me added,

When you’re young, life is busy busy, and you have difficulty finding time for prayer. But when you’re my age, God frees you so you can dedicate great time to prayer, and season it with your aches and pains. These 5 words [old age is for prayer] are like the 5 stones David went against Goliath with. We elders may seem frail, but in God’s eyes we are mighty. Elders hold up the world.

I began to ask Marge to pray for a host of specific intentions every visit, and then would report on the intentions each time I returned. One time, I said (according to my journal),

By praying you carry people to God who can’t carry themselves. I know you’re sad because you feel you’ve been dropped by your children, and because you now need us to carry you. But how many times in life did you pick other people up and carry them? [she said, “Lots.”] Would you want them to feel useless because they needed you? [she shook her head]

Your body is frail now, but God has given you a powerful spirit so you can lift others up in prayer. You’re lifting me up for sure! Giving into depression is giving up on your spirit’s power to lift up. Sometimes in life our call is to carry others in love, but other times it’s to be carried in humility. Mostly, it’s both, and both make the world better.

It was amazing the positive effect this idea had on her over time. Before I moved away, I went to say goodbye to her. She said with great emotion, “Thank you for carrying me, son.” I said, with equal emotion, “Same. In heaven, you’ll see just how many people you helped, Marge.”

Be still.

You have to allow a certain amount of time in which you are doing nothing in order to have things occur to you, to let your mind think. — Mortimer J. Adler

I gave a retreat this week for a school faculty. Teachers are one of my favorite groups to lead retreats with, as they are by profession hungry to learn, called to be the world’s experts at wondering.

As I often do, I spoke on the power of silence to open an inner space for creativity, honesty, freedom and prayer. Carving out time in each day to be still, to simplify your attention, to listen, to not be productive, to allow unattended thoughts and feelings to simply surface, without analyzing them — this is a royal road to inner peace and stability. To being fully human.

Among the most important practices of my day, I would rank at the top beginning every morning, not with music, news or internet, but with 5 minutes of total silence followed by at least 25 minutes of lectio divina on the day’s Mass readings. On the days I don’t do this, the effects are very evident. In a word, I lose my center and become dissipated.

Robert Cardinal Sarah said that “the life of silence must be able to precede the active life,” precisely because silence allows us to re-center ourselves within and become true actors and not just re-actors. Constant exposure to external noise, distraction and frenetic activity alienates us from ourselves, removes our anchor from God-in-the-soul and hooks our soul’s powers in the shifting sands around us.

I once had the opportunity to spend an hour in a car driving the Trappist monk and author, Fr. Raphael Simon, back to his monastery. What an honor, what a holy man. He heard my confession as I drove! I asked him what holiness looks like in his experience. He said,

In my experience, you can see greatness when words become fewer, weightier, more measured, emerge from a place of depth. Because of this, their words are like arrows that penetrate deeply into others. They also become exceedingly reticent to criticize anyone, and when they do, only with a sharp awareness of their own faults. You see, in silence God is able to reveal you to yourself in His light. But if you remain in noise, you remain in ignorance.

Easy to Please

Inside the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ. gatewaytosedona.com

Though Jesus Christ is very hard to satisfy, He is very easy to please. Think of that and it will help you a little. He is very easy to please, but very hard to satisfy. If you will but let Him in, and you have not much to put on the table. He will be so pleased, if it be but a cup of cold water that you can give him. Let it be something genuine, something real. – George MacDonald

During a major transition in my life years back, I was in a dark place. I felt alone, adrift, a failure. As so often happens with people of faith, I projected my own warped sense of self onto God and assumed God’s view of me simply replicated what I felt about myself. If I felt good, God was pleased; if I felt bad, God was displeased. It’s a twisted game, and it made me withdraw from prayer, posture myself in self-defense against God and hide.

During this time, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona with a friend. We decided to take a day-trip to Sedona to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross. As I sat there in the quiet, looking at the spectacular view, I felt a strange sense of what I can only describe as “home.” I wrote in my journal that night, “Today I finally sensed God with me, and it didn’t evoke pain. I sensed powerfully He was a rock, an immovable lighthouse, faithful no matter what. Small insight, vast implications.”

We traveled back to Scottsdale that evening, and the next morning I went to Confession at a local parish. After I finished confessing my sins, the priest said,

Let me read you something from 1 John. Whenever our hearts condemn us, we have to remember God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything [3:20]. You clearly want to do God’s will, and he knows that. Know this: God is so pleased with your desire to please him. I can sense it. He is grateful you are here today giving him your sins and fears. God is grateful. Isn’t that a beauty to behold?

As I write these words, I realize I cannot convey the power they exerted in me at that moment. He spoke them slowly, with intention and sincerity. His words seemed to emanate straight from the mouth of God. For my penance, he said, “I want you to go outside the city tonight if possible and find a place where you can look out at the stars. Allow the immensity of the skies to overwhelm you, and then remember the God who made all of that loves you, tiny as you are, like that.”

That was a turning point in my life, and I came out of hiding. I had come back home. Years later, my wife said something that brought me back to that moment. When we were discerning whether or not we should leave Tallahassee and move to Iowa, I told her, “I don’t feel right taking you away from a place that’s been your home for almost 30 years.” She took my hands and said, “Wherever the will of God takes us is my home.”

Will it.

ballzbeatz.com

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Will it.” — St. Thomas Aquinas‘ response to his sister’s question, “How does one become a saint?”

There are two heresies that Christians tend to succumb to: salvation is my work (Pelagianism), salvation is God’s work (Quietism). Orthodoxy is found in the mystery between these two extremes, as salvation is a theandric synergy, the co-working of man with God, grace and free will, fully God and fully man. In other words, salvation is Jesus, who is the redeemer and perfecter of the both/and.

Asceticism, which is a life of self-mastery ordered toward the cultivation of theological (faith-hope-love) and moral virtue (prudence-justice-temperance-fortitude), infuses each new day with a fresh resolve to be holy and a fresh plea to God, “Make me want to be holy!” The ascetic’s goal is to have the soul of the psalmist:

O God, you are my God; at dawn I seek you;
for you my soul is thirsting.
For you my flesh is pining,
like a dry, weary land without water (63:1-2).

Holiness is the demolition of every attempt to domesticate God, to make Him our lackey, or to quarantine Him in a safe zone so He can’t enter those spaces where we are vulnerable. In Scripture, the holiness of God is synonymous with dangerous. To approach God is supremely risky, as no one escapes from an encounter with Him alive. We must die to Old Man Adam to enter into His presence. Per crucem ad Patrem.

Let me tell you, if you do this every morning to launch your day, and really mean it, you will be amazed what happens. What happens? God’s mostly imperceptible, occasionally reprehensible revolution. G.K. Chesterton, writing of St. Francis’ stripping naked in the public square, said that “the transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution.” A turning away from comfort, satiety and mediocrity, and a turning toward “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

So, a good New Year’s resolution? Will it. Plead to want it. And then go and set the world on fire…

Theologians against logorrhea

St. John resting on the Heart of Jesus. pinimg.com

St. John the Evangelist’s Feast today introduces the reading of his magnificent Letters into the Christmas season liturgies. Today begins with the beginning of his first Letter,

What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life —
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us—
what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.

Such depth. Such a profound outworking of the Prologue of his Gospel. I can never read this too many times, and I get pumped every year when these Letters appear this season.

But what really struck me this morning as I prayed this text was the last line,We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.” What a fascinating reason to write. That set me thinking about the writing vocation of theologians, whose calling is to explore the deposit of faith and communicate its riches to others. I thought, for those of us who dare to opine on the Mystery of Faith, St. John’s words offer three core goals that should animate all of our speech.

First, the pursuit of a living intimacy with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. A theologian is one who knows, really knows the eternal Word. Who dares to speak of Him only after speaking with Him. Read again those opening words of this Letter. They claim the authority of first-hand experience of the Mystery of God, Jesus Christ.

Second, cultivation of the unity of love that is an outflow of, and inflow into God’s own Tri-unity. A theologian always seeks and serves unity, and where there is disunity, seeks reconciliation.

Third, the amplification and communication of joy. A theologian identifies, cultivates and removes obstacles to joy. In the words of Pope Benedict, their vocation “is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.”

Let me expand this out and say that any of the faithful who boldly dare to speak or write about the Mystery of Faith should exercise a holy fear, realizing God is not our personal possession, nor is His revelation an ideology. Rather, the living God has entrusted Himself and His deepest secrets to us for the purpose of drawing all creation into divine intimacy, fostering the unity of love and permitting His joy to enter the world.

If my intention in speaking of any aspect of the faith is divorced from any of these three things, I betray God’s own intention. Personally, nothing in life terrifies me more than the thought of exploiting for my own ends God’s own life and revealed mystery. As my dad often said, “I’d rather be an atheist than risk that.”

So I ask myself before (and after) I begin to type, write or speak of these Mysteries in a manner that will influence others (especially on social media): Does this flow from prayer and lead to prayer? Will this unify or reconcile? Will this bear the fruit of joy? If not, I should remain silent until I have become rightly disposed through repentance and prayer.

When we fail to act with holy fear, fail to carefully consider our words, rushing in where angels fear to tread, we can do great damage by marring the beauty of God’s Mystery entrusted to us. And we will have to answer one day before the Judgment Seat of Christ for the damage we inflict by our words.

I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter. — Matt. 12:36

My grandfather also used to say, “Be silent, or say something better than silence.” What’s better than silence? Well chosen words born of divine intimacy, leading into divine unity and divine joy.

With St. John the Divine, spread it around.

BØRNS Theology of Baptism

Emerald Pool at Zion National Park. i.redd.it

Baptism does not relieve the disease of original sin: it cures it, leaving its scars like trophies. Baptism does not offer a better set of therapies to soften death’s inevitability: it destroys death itself. Baptism does not confirm bureaucracy and status quo: it dissolves the first and overturns the second. Baptism does not insulate us against reality: it throws back the covers and kicks us out to dance naked with the real in the light of the moon. – Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

I gave a presentation back in September at a local parish on the Sacrament of Baptism. As part of my talk, I played the BØRNS song, 10,000 Emerald Pools, at the very end and gave them a copy of the lyrics. I asked those present to reflect in silence on how the lyrics might help them reflect on the theology I had presented. The results were stunning.

I had decided to use this song in my teaching after going to the BØRNS concert with my daughters last year, as his performance of this song lifted me to another world in the midst of a body-to-body packed mosh pit. The sense I had there and then of the “secular liturgy” of life that arises from Baptism washed over me and stayed for weeks afterward. I saw that every action of life, religious or not, is suffused with the potential of immersing us more deeply in the mystery of God and drawing the world we touch down with us into the “depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).

I was not expecting the depth of reflections that followed that night. I had to stop us at 20 minutes because we had already gone overtime for the evening. One man wrote me an email the next day, “I just want to tell you that your presentation plus the song and then silence equaled my having an experience of prayer I have never had. I never think about my baptism in any way but now it’s all I think of. All of that in me?? Why in the world doesn’t every Catholic know this???…”

I am beginning to think if I just speak on Baptism and its effects, I can say everything I need and yet never have had sufficient time to say it all…

This pool is life
that floods the world;
the wounds of Christ
its awesome source…

I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
Under water
Time is standing still
You’re the treasure
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!

I’ll make a living, trying to get away
10,000 fathoms, under a tidal wave
It can never pull me away
No way!
Under water
Time is standing still
You’re the treasure
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!
You’re all I need to breathe
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
You’re all I need to breathe
I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you
You’re all I need to breathe

All I need is you!
All I need is you!
It can never pull me away
Time is standing still
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!

Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee

…for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company — Bar. 5:9

This text from today’s first reading at Mass has a quiet beauty about it. Especially, “leading Israel in joy.” Let me share here some fragmented thoughts on joy.

Joy, in the Christian tradition, is a fruit of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are side-effects of living life in harmony with the will of God. I like to define joy as delight in the fulfillment of goodness, beauty and truth, all of which are the summation of a life lived in love. But unlike happiness, which demands fulfillment in the present, joy feeds off of a confident trust in the future promise of fulfillment assured by a God who is trustworthy and able.

Joy can be as elusive as the future.

This all means joy and hope are close companions. Hence, the God who “leads Israel in joy” is the God who has established for His people, in a hopeless present, the promise of a future full of hope.

Like hope, joy intensifies as the present experience of darkness holds the bright promise of future fulfillment in relief. Through the cross to the Light.

Joy requires a clear vision of our promised future fulfillment, and of the way that leads there. The vision is what we call faith, and the way is what we call love. Faith is the vision of both the Giver and that which we have been called to receive; hope is the Giver’s promise that grounds our confidence that we will receive it; love is the manner in which we receive; and joy is the delight in all three.

Jesus Himself is the Giver, the Guarantor, the Truth of our vision, the Life that is our ultimate fulfillment, and the Way of love by which we are led into joy.

Pat, who had become a dear friend of our family back in the mid 1990’s, was dying of cancer. He was terrified of death, as he feared his long life of selfish malice, of breaking hearts and lives would be waiting for him at the Last Judgment he was soon to face. His recent conversion back to faith, and life of repentance and charity, was no solace for him. He imagined only that the proportion of a few years of good will set against decades of wrongdoing would weigh against him in the final scales of justice.

Pat was joyless because he refused to accept mercy as a recklessly free gift given by a prodigal God to the undeserving. In his pain, Pat turned in on himself, wallowing in fear, drowning in anger-turned-inward, instead of “opening to the Sun above” whose joy over Pat’s return would surpass — O Paradox! — even His infinity.

My wife brought our children to visit Pat in the hospice one day. When they walked in the room, Pat began to cry. Our youngest son, about 5 at the time, jumped up into the bed and excitedly said to Pat, “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay!” Pat began to sob, and said loudly, “No it’s not!” Because of the commotion, the woman who was caring for Pat, who was a devout Catholic, told my wife that it’s probably better if they leave so he can settle down.

Later that day this woman called me to share with me the story of what followed their visit. She said,

After they left, Pat was inconsolable and agitated. So I went to his bedside and said, “Pat, listen to me. Did you feel that little boy’s innocence and love in his words to you? Didn’t you feel God in him?” Pat seemed to calm a bit, and agreed. Then I said, “Don’t you see that Jesus sent him to you to speak those words on His behalf? Pat, Jesus wanted you to know that those are the words you will hear when you die and face Him. ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay.'”

Pat settled into a calm rest, and when I left the room, he flat-lined. So be sure to tell your wife and son that they were messengers of heaven and let Pat die in peace.

And joy.

Tout est grâce, “all is grace.”

Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
And oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah