“Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep?” — Psalm 44:24

God, quite often, uses a discordant note to make a symphony. — Joe, Sky View

The tuning up of an orchestra can be itself delightful, but only to those who can in some measure, however little, anticipate the symphony. — C.S. Lewis

God likes it when you get angry and tell him what you feel to his face because he is a Father! — Pope Francis

We have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists’

[This was a stream of consciousness journal entry written after my son and I spoke about prayer late into the night]

What the ‘proofs’ prove is, at one and the same time, the existence of God and that, as said of God, we have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists.’ … Reason is rooted in our animality and it opens up into the mystery which lies unutterably beyond it, for it can, out of fidelity to its own native impulse, ask the question which it knows it could not answer, the asking being within its powers, the answering being in principle beyond them — Denys Turner

This quote captures for me a deep taproot of wonder, the sacrament of which is the question. Theology is defined by St. Anselm of Canterbury as “faith seeking understanding,” an understanding of the content of divine revelation entrusted to Israel and fully manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

Let me say a few words about “divine revelation.” The history of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, is the history of an astonished race of nomadic Semites who found themselves beset by an unexpected god, guilty of breaking and entering their world with an utterly new, completely unsought, unspeakably bizarre and thoroughly disorienting revelation. This was a god who violated all usual constraints of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon, including the territorial and celestial borders each god observed. This God of gods seemed to feel free to roam wherever he wished (which is why Jonah fled to the sea in 1:3, thinking himself safe from the land god!) and vanquished all divine competitors (as Ex. 12:12 indicates, the plagues each specifically targeted the most powerful Egyptian gods).

The Exodus effected by this Roaming Conqueror was one theologically disorienting experience for the Hebrews and Egyptians.

Think here of Moses in the Sinai desert happening on the absurd vision of a burning bush that speaks to him and commands him to return to Egypt and confront the god-king, Pharaoh. And then when Moses asks this terrifying and fascinating deity for a name, what does he find out?

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Seriously? I am? Clearly, it is a name that is at once a firm evasion of being named, evading any human claim to manipulative control of a god. This god is uncontrollable, cannot be bribed or manipulated (Deut. 10:17), because he is holy, i.e. wholly other, totally unique, completely singular, sui generis. A capital G God.

Theology is the description of the work of an exploring mind that has had opened within it a radically new capax, a “capacity” for entering into this absurdly new and uncharted field of inquiry; into the God’s real-time, living self-disclosure. And faith is the name theology gives to this remarkable new capacity given to the mind for accessing immediate knowledge of the source-less Source of all existence. In fact, faith opens the mind to immediate contact with God, mind to Mind, moving the believer from mere conceptual knowledge about God to personal knowledge of God. This is what the monk Evagrius meant when he said, “The theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Prayer is the act of faith opening the mind to God, which is another way of saying acquiring the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Jesus is God’s human mind, which is why all prayer leads us into Christ (John 14:6).

When I think of all this, I am with John:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17).

St. John of the Cross argues that the union of the mind with God through faith requires a passage through darkness and death precisely because it involves a finite mind opening up within itself an infinite capacity. In this sense, the “dark night of faith” requires a leap of surrender that gives God permission to lead us from our narrow field of vision into the “vast and silent desert” where He can cease to hide and be fully God-for-us. As Mother Teresa said it, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself: Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive him and keep him as your own.”

Prayer ensures that the theologian’s knowledge is of God; of the outside-the-box, wild and transcendent God who is source-less, beginning-less, origin-less, un-created, un-bounded. God, in an absolute way, transcends our finite experience of existence. While we would say that there is a certain likeness between God and the world He created, which gives theology something to talk about, we also affirm a greater unlikeness gives theology something to be quiet about. This is prayer in its final flowering: to contemplate mystery, to permit God full freedom in us, embarking on love’s endless quest into the inexhaustible self-disclosure of God in Christ.

So, son, if you want to pray be ready for the ride.

And don’t ever forget, all of this raucous mystery finds its sweetest fruit only in the capacity to love like Jesus; especially to love one’s enemy.

Time in a Bottle

[Written last December, sat in my drafts, sent out today]

Oh, how precious time is! Blessed are those who know how to make good use of it. Oh, if only all could understand how precious time is, undoubtedly everyone would do his best to spend it in a praiseworthy manner! — Padre Pio

I woke up with a start at 3:30 a.m. with the Jim Croce song, Time in a Bottle, playing in my head. It was startling, first of all because I had not thought of the song in years, and second of all because it sounded like it was playing in my ears when I woke up.

The day before I had spent the whole day with my wife, Patti, and all four of our children (at once!), which is very rare these days. We went to a movie, ate out, and later at home told funny family stories and looked at old pictures until after midnight. As the day ended, I was filled with overflowing gratitude for this fleeting taste of what I once took for granted. Before Patti and I went to bed, I pulled up the nuptial blessing that was prayed over us by Bishop Smith on our wedding day and shared this last part with her:

May they be blessed with children,
and prove themselves virtuous parents,
who live to see their children’s children.
And grant that,
reaching at last together the fullness of years
for which they hope,
they may come to the life of the blessed
in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Through Christ our Lord.

I told Patti how sad time’s relentless passage was, and she countered with a Dr. Seuss quote — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I went to sleep struggling to gratefully offer to God, and not rue, the passing of life into memory.

So as I laid awake at 3:30 a.m. recalling the song’s lyrics, it all suddenly made sense why this particular song had come to mind in my sleep. When I was young, I always grieved the passing of happy times and fantasized about time travel so I could return and re-live good times again. I just knew I would appreciate them more next time around! I also used to daydream, when I was in my teens, about singing this song to my future wife. And now this song had come to embrace my children as well, who have come to re-define life’s meaning for me.

I wrote on a piece of paper next to my bed,

God became human to ensure that nothing in time consecrated by love is lost in eternity, and — even more! — allowed His own immutable eternity to be enriched by time, consecrated and taken up into Himself. And He who is love even takes up into Himself the loveless, drowns it in His mercy and raises it with glorious wounds. The God who IS, became. Became all things for us, to seek and save what was lost. John 1:14 touches all of time, touched yesterday.

I fell back asleep and dreamed about walking along a backwoods path in Iowa where the kids and I, back in 2008, would go on a ‘secret adventure’ early every Saturday morning. When I woke up again, I prayed my morning Suscipe and listened to the song…

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me.
To Thee, O Lord, I return it.
All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.
Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

When words fail into prayer

[repost 2015]

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words. ― Georges Bernanos

After some painful events yesterday, I sat in silence alone. Tears fell, I looked at the crucifix on the wall. No words, no prayers, just silence, tears, aching. I felt I prayed then more than I had in a long while. I recalled on my drive home my eight-day Ignatian silent retreat in 2012. My spiritual director, frighteningly wise, gave me advice on how to allow the silence to create in me a disposition to prayer. I pulled my journal up from that day. Here’s a snippet:

+ + +

Fr. John asked me to allow the silence to burn through me, to draw out from me hidden toxins, purge the noise, and re-learn the power of words. Good Lord, not sure I am ready for that. Fascinating point, he said that the real power of words before God is when they shade into inarticulate longing, pining, yearning. These are the grammar, syntax and lexicon of love. Like music without words. Articulate words, he said, we can control, use and manipulate, but longing evades conscious manipulation. God meets us at the source of our longing, which rises like a spring deep within. He mentioned what St. Paul describes in Romans 8:26 as deep prayer, the stenagmois alalētois, ‘inarticulate moaning’ prayer of the Spirit. I also thought of Jesus in Mark 15:37, his last sound was a phōnēn megalēn, a ‘loud scream.’ The Word-made-scream.

I also thought of [my wife] Patti during the first miscarriage. I sat by her side, said no words while she moaned and prayed in pain and sorrow. I felt useless, or maybe helpless and tried to share a comforting thought, but she said very forcefully, without hesitation, ‘Please don’t.’ Weeks later, she expressed her gratitude for my support, saying, ‘I just needed your presence and your hand. Sometimes words trivialize.’ Yes, becoming one flesh through our hands that day seemed to infinitely surpass the oneness of sexual intimacy. I can think of no moments in our marriage more intimate, and more terrible, than those hours. God, her echoes of God’s phōnēn megalēn in the face of death. My hand vibrated from the sound.

I also thought of that ‘last supper’ scene in [the movie] Of Gods and Men, as the monks knew the terrible fate that awaited them. Expressive faces, smiles, tears, no words.

 

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.

Live in the Light: Seeking Fraternal Correction

pravmir.com

[re-post from 2015]

Fraternal correction, properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. — St Thomas Aquinas

On our third session my very first spiritual director, at my request, taught me about humility. (What was I thinking asking him about that?) After reading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ back in 1989, the whole idea of humility seemed completely repulsive. Kempis’ description seemed to me to be a kind of spiritual self-loathing or canonized low self-esteem. Yuck. I just couldn’t get how it was a healthy human attitude. My director smiled, and said, “Are you sure you want to go there?” I said, “I don’t know, do I? You’re the director!”

He went on to describe humility as the foundation of everything meaningful and good in life, principally because it is the willingness to face the truth about yourself, others, the world and God, and not hide from it. And if you can’t face the truth, nothing good can happen. Especially, he said, humility is seeing the truth of who I am called by God to be, set right next to the truth of who I in fact am. “Only then,” he said, “will you know both where you are and where you need to go.” “But,” he added, “you can’t achieve this virtue by mere self-determination and force of will. It takes a relationship for humility to emerge.” He continued at length,

If you really want to grow in humility the rest of your life, you must have at least one trustworthy and wise person with whom you can be absolutely truthful about yourself; especially to face the parts of life that are fearful or painful to look at. But here’s the linchpin: you need to be willing to allow this person to be brutally honest with you. If you don’t have both the give and the take of this relationship, you simply will not be able to see the whole truth.

Not having such a person in your life is a breeding ground for secrecy and isolation, which are the playground of the devil. We human beings are masters of rationalization and self-deception.  We spend our lives building elaborate fortresses to protect our fragile egos, built on pathetic delusions and disfigurements, afraid that if anyone sees who we really are, and speaks truth into the musty shadows, we will just fall apart. That’s a lie!

All addiction recovery groups get this point really well — addiction feeds on insulation from all personal accountability and honesty, and is terrified of the truth. Addiction is built on a network of lies. And all sin is addiction. But can you see where humility comes in? Humility allows you to take that step of admitting powerlessness, of the need for God’s grace; especially God’s grace in a human face.

I always begin my spiritual direction sessions with my director saying, “Love me enough to tell me the truth.”

He paused as he saw my pale white face, and then said, “Are you with me?” I nodded. This was heavy for me. “Okay,” he continued, “so this is how we will work in our relationship here. Don’t blow smoke at me, no sugar coating, no BS. I already know you’re full of pride and arrogance, envious and slothful. I can already see your skeletons hidden in the closet, the fragility of your ego. And sorry to say, I’m not impressed. You’re not much different from anyone else, or from me, so get over it. And let’s be very clear: if you ever feel that you have to impress or please me, play games in presenting yourself to me a certain way, our spiritual direction relationship is over. Done. A total waste of your time and mine. What I think of you, Tom, is really irrelevant. We are here to get at what God thinks of you and where to go from there.”

I felt shaken by such directness, and strangely liberated.

To my director’s point, 27 years later I would say with great conviction that having that kind of person in my life has been the single most important ingredient contributing to my ongoing mental and spiritual health. Whether that “trusted other” has been a spiritual director, a friend, my wife(!), a counselor, Confessor or a mentor, these people have given me the time and space needed to “face the music” and live in the way of discipleship Jesus articulates in John 3:19-21:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Whenever I find myself tempted to hide things from my wife, for example, I know I’ve just found my danger zone. In this regard, James 5:16 catches it well: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” That’s hard as hell, but it’s the only — I mean only  — way to freedom. As in, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). What a gift of love that is!

Having such relationships of accountability in life allows God’s remedying judgment to be passed on me now (and not just on Judgment Day; John 12:31!) so that I can abandon now everything in my life that prevents me from living in freedom, truth and love. God’s judgment is on sin, Satan — the Father of lies — and death, and inasmuch as I allow myself to live under the enslaving power of these dark forces, I live under God’s judgment. What a blessed judgment of God! Judge away! Alleluia! God desires nothing other for me than to be unshackled, to live in the freedom of His children and not as a slave. “You’re the Judge…set me free!” God as Judge is really God as Redeemer, Savior and Liberator. Divine judgment is mercy for those who wish to be free, as mercy is love encountering evil and overcoming it.

All of the servants of truth in my life do me the great favor of mediating to me God’s judgment of mercy. How awesome it is that every work of God is always, in every instance, ordered to bind me closer to others.  “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” to me means to humble myself before that trusted other so they become “grace in my face.” Yes, indeed, and let me say in parting that all of these people in my life who so effectively expose me to the light, who help me face reality in the light of God’s love are able to do so only because they themselves live that way. Because, nemo dat quod non habet, “you can’t give what you don’t have.”

Two years ago, a priest who teaches at the seminary, who is in his 80’s, came to me to review his course evaluation and get my feedback as his Academic Dean. Dear God, the man is a saint with twice my teaching experience and more wisdom than I will ever have. Anyway, when he sat down to discuss it he shared with me the changes he had implemented last year based on my critical feedback, and said without an ounce of discomfort, “You really helped me improve. I appreciate it. I always want to be better for the seminarians. You see, you can teach an old dog new tricks [laughing]. Okay, so now let’s hear what else you think I can improve on this time…” I said, “Bless me Father for I have sinned…” We laughed.

But I wasn’t kidding. Humility makes you feel humble.

We are made in weakness so that we might supply for each other, for the power of a God who is love is only made perfect in weakness. Amen.

Birthday of the Mother of God

The Nativity of the Virgin Mary, daughter of Sts. Joachim and Anna

[Mary’s] is a motherhood in the order of grace, for it implores the gift of the Spirit. — St. John Paul II

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, celebrated exactly nine months after the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception. Happy birthday, Blessed Mother!

And, may I add, happy birthday to a young man named Hunter! Join me in thanking God for his life and asking for him every good gift from above. A good man is hard to find, but you are one of them, Hunter.

In lieu of Mary’s feast, I would like to honor her by sharing a very personal grace I received through her hands that has benefited me to this day. My hope is that it will simply serve as a lesson for you.

Late in 2006, while I was working on my doctoral dissertation and working full time, with four small children at home, I was growing progressively discouraged with my ability to complete the research phase and get to writing. I was deathly afraid I might end up, with so many other doctoral students, buried in the ABD (All But Dissertation) graveyard. I would wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning and work until 10:30 or 11:00 each night trying to take to heart advice given to me by a venerable professor on my dissertation committee: Eat books. What I soon realized as I started down this path is that one book’s footnote leads to another book leads to an article leads to a monograph leads to someone else’s dissertation on a related topic, etc. And as you press your way deeper and deeper into the thickets of knowledge, you suddenly realize the original premise of work may very well be entirely misplaced.

Then you cry, get over it and start all over again after you get some sleep.

In the midst of all this intensity, my wife Patti, who is both keenly perceptive and brutally truthful, noticed something very important. I had filled my early morning prayer time with research. Early one Thursday morning in December, she saw me working at my desk and immediately took me to task (as she did again just the other day!), pressing her index finger into my chest: “You need to be a man of prayer or you’re no good to us. You’ll lose your focus, your center and your anchor. Know thyself, Mr. Neal.”

She has a way of speaking that is all at once loving and fiercely commanding — all who know her need no further explanation here. I stood exposed, convicted and resolute in recommitting to my early morning prayer.

The next day, Friday morning, was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. I was praying at around 5:15 a.m. As was (and is) my daily custom, I spent the first 30 minutes mulling prayerfully on the Scripture readings for the Mass that day. As I got to the Gospel, which narrated the story of the archangel Gabriel bearing God’s stunning request to Mary, I reflected on how overwhelmed she must have been at the sudden discovery of her vocation to be the mother of the Messiah. For some reason the word “overshadowed” made me think of how overwhelmed she must have felt, coming to terms with the immensity of what was happening to her as the eternal God entered her body to become flesh.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

I stopped and asked her to pray for me to face my feelings of overwhelming discouragement and fear with the same courage and faith she showed in consenting to God’s will. Very suddenly, a still silence and a strange calm came over me. I was slightly unnerved.

It is uncharacteristic for me to have intense experiences during prayer, as they are usually quite ordinary, so I really wondered what was happening. I tried to ignore it and maintain my focus on requesting her assistance. But the calm quickly transitioned into an even more extraordinary sense of Mary’s personal presence near me. Almost spatially near me, to my right. The presence was, if I had to describe it, both maternal and very powerful. As odd as this seems (to me most of all!), I then felt her hands rest on the top of my head and sensed her speaking these words over me: “Father, let your Spirit come upon my son.” All at once I felt a surge of warmth, energy, power — something remarkable — course through my whole body. It lasted probably less than a minute, but the after effect — which I am still vividly aware of to this very moment — could best be captured in one word: fortitude. I felt a deep and abiding sense of courage to face whatever.

And “whatever” came in spades. In December of 2007 I successfully defended my dissertation.

Two women flanked me in those early days of December, 2006. One was my Sacrament with a finger poking my chest, the other was my Mother with hands laid on my head. Both drew the fiery Spirit down on me, and both called me back to re-confess the primacy of grace by a renewed commitment to the quiet, daily, ordinary, faithful life of prayer. Because of these two women, and along with St. Teresa of Avila, I say with trenchant conviction: “We must have a determined determination to never give up prayer.”

We must. And blessed am I among women.