I rely on the Word

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”

 

Fidelity, Fatherhood and Prayer

When Ashley and our daughter Maria performed the other week at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, as part of the Al Copeland Foundation’s “Chicken Jam” fundraiser which supports new local cancer research, education and patient programs, it was for me, my wife and our other children a blended experience of joy, nerves and pride. This was their largest venue thus far, with nearly an hour to fill with music.

They soared.

There was even a friend of mine, herself a musician (and a theologian), who flew all the way from Chicago to New Orleans just to see and hear them. I told her that all of us were overwhelmed by her show of support, but she quipped back, “Support? Are you kidding? They don’t need my support! I just wanted to hear them perform live!”

Growing up, I passed by so many opportunities to try new things that involved the vulnerability of risk. I lived with a certain fear of failure, of being shamed by peers, and so mostly chose to blend in and pick the low-hanging fruit, playing it safe. This is not a ‘woe is me,’ simply a statement of fact.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand (aka grace), after my faith conversion in 1987, I rapidly shed a large portion of those fears and began to venture out into new and uncharted territories. I am exceedingly grateful to God for this, as so much of what I have been able to do in my life would never have been had I remained in the prison of fear.

Raising our own children, Patti and I, encouraged by so many extraordinary parents, families and friends we came to know, worked mightily to offer them an environment and opportunities to spread their wings, to risk new adventures, to discover the gifts God has placed in them.

Innumerable times over the years, the ghosts of my past would haunt me in the night, warning me of grave dangers that awaited my children were they to step out into the unknown. These shadows, bearing weapons of fear and despair, knew well my weaknesses. Without prayer, which I clung to in those nights, I don’t know how I could have pressed on with confidence for our children.

This is where my vocation as father saved me, the knowledge that my children needed me to be something far larger than those constricted spaces of my soul circumscribed by my own limits. Fatherhood called me to transcend those limits for them, to remove my gaze from my own issues and choose instead to focus on the potential of their God-given greatness. As a Confessor once said to me, “They are God’s children, only yours on loan. Help them seek His vision for them, not yours. His is much bigger and better.”

I recall a very specific time when I was bogged down by a “Tom-limit” in dealing with one of our children who was facing a very difficult time. My wife, who detected my struggle, directly confronted me on it. It was an important epiphany for me. She said,

I know what you’re thinking and what you’re afraid of, but you’ve got to remember that it’s your issue. You can’t let it get in the way of letting [our child] learn for himself how much he can handle. You have to set aside your own stuff, step out of yourself and challenge him to see just how far he can go. God knows and I know what you want to protect him from, but he doesn’t need to know.

Wow, when someone knows you that well there’s just no hiding. What a grace! I am convinced that those who lack such vulnerability in a friendship simply cannot grow. That day, I grew. As did my son.

All of our children have vastly transcended my limits, by God’s grace, each discovering their signature uniqueness, going places I would never have dreamed of going. It’s awesome to see. While they have and will always face the hardships life brings, and fail along the way, to see their wings spread, their hearts swell, their gifts blossom, their characters solidify, their faith come alive in a way wholly unique to each … well, there are few greater joys I can imagine sharing in life with my wife.

One of my favorite prayers has become sharing with God my constant amazement over the miracle that is each of our children. I am grateful when I see my own good qualities in them, exceedingly grateful when I see them surpass my limits, and overwhelmed with gratitude when I see God draw out good for them from my own failures as a father.

Ashley and Maria sang that night a song I had never heard before, Fidelity by Regina Spector. As they sang, I was awash in gratitude while standing with my family and my friend from Chicago. Copious tears streamed down my face, at those words…

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart…

That’s it. Love has broken my heart. May it never recover.

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Well, it breaks my heart
Suppose I never ever met you
Suppose we never fell in love
Suppose I never ever let you
Kiss me so sweet and so soft
Suppose I never ever saw you
Suppose you never ever called
Suppose I kept on singing love songs
Just to break my own fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Break my fall
Break my fall
All my friends say
That of course it’s
Gonna get better
Gonna get better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in my mind
All of this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart

Naked Prayer

11th Station. pinimg.com

Pray always! He knows our needs better than we do! Indeed, persevering prayer is the expression of faith in a God who calls us to fight with him every day and at every moment in order to conquer evil with good. — Pope Francis

In the days when my father was dying, he frequently prayed. He was severely limited in his ability to move or communicate, but quite a number of times he made the sign of the cross at great cost of pain. And he groaned the word “mercy” countless times, and one of the few times he spoke to me, he said, “Terrible. Thank God.”

It was awe inspiring to witness.

He had mentioned to me many times over the last several years about the importance of facing the “final agony,” the death throes that accompany the end of life, with courage and surrender. He said, “It’s when God has finally taken it on Himself to humble you before He takes you,” adding with a chuckle, “which is going to take a lot of work for me.”. Another time he said something like this, which I wrote down later,

Our Lord made it clear in the Passion that when prayer cuts across the grain of your soul, when pain turns you in on yourself and you choose prayer, you will it, this is an act of great spiritual power. Praying with a naked will in the pitch black, stripped of all the spiritual sweets, is when love becomes agapē. Which is what saves us.

I always thought of the Agony in the Garden this way after he shared that insight, as Jesus’ prayer shifted from a petition aligned with the grain of His soul — “let this cup pass me by” — to a petition that cut across the grain of His soul — “but not my will, but yours be done.” On the cross He continued to pray this way, extending to the extreme “thy will be done,” no doubt with countless naked acts of the will amid excruciating muscle spasms. For us men and for our salvation.

My dad taught me in his dying a new way of praying. When my spirit is far removed from the desire to pray, I now want to pray more than ever. Sure, fitfully mostly, but I attempt to rouse my naked will to Him with love. I hope at least approximating agapē.

Next time you feel conditions in life are most inhospitable to prayer, cutting across the grain of your soul, then pray as you never have prayed.

For us.

High Fives or Watered Gardens?

[beware: this is a meandering post]

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
To choose always the hardest. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was talking with one of my children the other night [I will say it is my son to keep it non-specific] about people who spend their lives fending off all criticism and any honest feedback from others. Actually, we were speaking of a specific person, but then generalized a bit. Whether by isolating themselves, feigning omniscience, posturing as the mountaintop cynic, claiming a victim status (not my fault), or sustaining an elaborate set of strategies to elicit praise, affirmation and agreement from those around them, these people live in a perpetual buffered zone.

He said, “You just can’t get close to them because you can never be totally real with them. You can’t have a real discussion because you know they’re going to go into defensive mode and it’s always about them winning. It’s like they’re always trying to prove something or can’t learn from you, and that’s just so fake and annoying.”

The conversation was sparked after we listened to a recent live performance by Sigrid of her song, High Five, which is all about this kind of person.

We talked about the best way to relate to this person and maybe help them not feel so threatened or just to face the facts. We talked about this person’s family upbringing and what in the family system might have helped to form those ways of dealing with life. We also agreed that all of us can fall into variations of that pattern, making the distance between us and this person only a matter of degree. He said, “Yeah, I pray for him to get a dose of humility and for me to have patience.”

We talked about the importance of honest friendships or even good therapy to confront such things. I said to my son that one of the main goals of friendship and of therapy is to help us to acquire virtues, like courage, humility or honesty, and added, “Years ago I went to therapy, and quickly learned that in the end it’s there to help you become a good person, not just a more functional person. In fact, the underlying goal of all education is supposed to be cultivating a virtuous character. But we’ve mostly lost that.”

One thing my wife did/does exceptionally well as a parent is work hard at intentionally cultivating virtues in our children and their friends. When they were younger, she gave an award to our children at the end of each school year honoring their unique “beatitude” virtues. For her, chores were about solidarity, dealing with irritating siblings was about patience, organizing your time well was a matter of prudence, admitting you messed up was about practicing humility, putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher was linked to justice, serving in the soup kitchen was a work of mercy, or asking someone how their day went (and then listening) meant choosing charity over selfishness.

Once when one of our children said, “I don’t feel like doing that,” Patti replied, “If I did what I felt like, you’d starve.” She also liked to say, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”

I flew up to D.C. to meet with the late Carmelite scholar, Fr. Kieran Kavanagh, back in 2006 to discuss my dissertation on St. John of the Cross. It was a great honor. Among the many things he taught me, I recall him saying something particularly remarkable. “One might say,” he said in his very gentle voice, “that for St. Teresa the whole purpose of prayer is to grow virtue. Because when you grow virtue, your soul is conformed to the divine image and so is most suitable to union with God. To be merciful is to be disposed to union with divine mercy; to be just, disposed to union with divine justice; kind, with His kindness; and so on.”

He then added, “As you know, she describes different kinds of prayer as various methods of acquiring water, and says the virtues are flowers in the garden of the soul. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say for her the water of prayer is given for sake of the flowers of virtue. Which means if you want to judge the health of your prayer life, she’d tell you, don’t concern yourself with lofty feelings or inspired sentiments. No, she’d say examine your response next time someone crosses you…”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

The Confessor I went to on retreat said this to me, in his thick German accent, after I had revealed my sins. He expanded on his words,

You are working so hard to please God, and this is good. And you have failed, and have shared this openly with God. Now you can know His mercy, and when you know His mercy you know something about God even the angels cannot know — the Father’s tender compassion for you as His son. Remember before anything else, you must always go down with Jesus into the water of forgiveness and receive the Father’s tender words, ‘My beloved son.’

Jesus went to the Cross to allow you to hear these words.

But if you don’t allow these words to enter you and define you, you will cling to other identities that will leave you wanting. No matter what happens, no matter how you fail, no matter how others fail you — the Father always, always loves you.

Then he told me to allow St. John the Baptist to take me down to the Jordan, to lead me to Jesus. “He is the forerunner, he prepares the way and is a great saint for leading us to the Father by leading us to Jesus.”

I did, and my takeaway was this: “Become a more loving father by knowing your identity as a beloved son, by allowing yourself to be loved by the Father.” So simple, so basic, so fundamental, so profound, so easy to forget. All I could think of throughout the afternoon was a line from St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans,

There is within me a water
that lives and speaks,
saying to me inwardly,
‘Come to the Father.’

That water of baptism, first sanctified in the Jordan, contains within it the whole mystery of life and death. St. John the Baptist, lead me in to taste there of the Father’s tender mercy. There I can learn to be the father my children deserve.

Heaven in a Wild Flower

Cathedral vault

My cathedral

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. — William Blake

I am on my annual retreat this week at a new location for me, somewhere in the Heartland. Whenever I choose a place to retreat, it is always a spot lost in meadows, forests or otherwise uninhabited seashores. Preferably far from noise and light pollution. Always a silent retreat, with time governed only by liturgy, meals and the Spirit’s unforeseen surprises.

Yesterday the rain came. Heavy, sustained. Low rumbles of thunder. Once the ground even shook. A man on retreat took a long walk in the rain and returned, drenched. I saw him coming in the door and said, “Caught in the rain?” He replied with an impish grin, “Nope, singin’ in the rain! Makes me feel alive again.”

After Vespers, I walked along the rural road straddling the monastery and saw an enormous rainbow in the east as the black clouds retreated. I sprinted up a grassy bluff to watch it blaze, then fade away. I could almost hear the words whispered,

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.– Gen. 9:13

Last night I went out in the middle of the night to catch an earful of the nighthawk’s rhythmic cry descending and the ceaseless chorus of crickets rising. I was not disappointed, as both filled my soul beneath a softly waning moonlight that broke, now and again, through the racing altocumulous clouds. Out in the dark night, prayer is so easy.

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel,
who even at night directs my heart. — Psalm 16:7

This morning shortly after sunrise I went out into a grove of spruce trees to pray my rosary and sat down on a still-crispy bed of damp needles. I dubbed it ‘my cathedral’, built on an altar of sodden earth and splintered boughs, with the highest soaring vault one could imagine. It is my favorite space to offer the logikē latreia, “rational worship” (Rom. 12:1) of my body, readying for the Holy Sacrifice which followed.

I found myself surrounded in this cathedral by the most marvelous avian menagerie — among them, robins, wood thrushes, house sparrows, phoebes, mourning doves, chipping sparrows, a catbird, a flicker and barn swallows deftly navigating the sky above catching (hopefully) all the mosquitoes bloated with my blood. All these gave each Glory be a whole new sacrificial power.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself
in which she sets her young, at your altars,
O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. — Psalm 84:4

And the spruce fragrance was totally overwhelming. Made me breathe deeply and regret exhaling. Reminded me of when I was a child and would sit in the white pine patch near our home each Spring just to smell the fresh sap oozing from the enlivening trees and feel the soft new candles shooting heavenward. Actually, I put my hand on a white pine today and my hand was sticky from the sap. Hallelujah!

After the rosary, I joined the monks in their chapel for the morning Divine Office. It was all so seamless. Daniel 3:57-88 came to mind as I left the chapel, stirring in me the fire to extend again my priestly duty throughout the day.

Let the earth bless the Lord;
let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever. — vs. 74

The flowers here are endless in variety. Both cultivated and wild. Too many to name, but I especially love the expanses of white clover covered with industrious honeybees and the sprawling crownvetch dotted with sprightly skippers.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. — Matt. 6:28-29

Then there are these enormous black ant mounds, streaming with worker ants excavating the earth and bringing in fresh catch for the queen and her brood. Like a sacrament, the mound conceals deep within a vast hidden world teeming with a common life marked by selfless giving, each living for the sake of all.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. — Acts 4:32

This is, in fact, what transpires ever-always in the recesses of the Holy Trinity. I felt it pulsing in that mound.

Eucharistic Prayer IV was used at Mass, “…with them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven…”

Okay, I must stop as it’s time to pray again.

But when is it not?