Solomon the Wise

“God Speaks to Solomon in a Dream” bibleencyclopedia.com

Yesterday we had a faculty retreat to begin the new academic year. It was such a breath of fresh air for all of us, and a nice reunion as most faculty were away for the summer. Here are my sprawling and free-flowing notes I wrote out at the end of the retreat after everyone left. I’ll not post tomorrow because of the length. For what they’re worth…

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Our retreat director began with the story in 1 Kings 3 of God asking young Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What a frightening request! A divine blank check! As one of my colleagues read this passage aloud, I immediately thought of the Latin dictum, Lex orandi, lex crediendi, “the law of prayer, the law of belief.” Solomon’s response to that open-ended offer would lay bare his faith life and his character as King, since we pray as we believe. “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21). Was Solomon, like his father David, really a man “after the heart of God” (cf Acts 13:22)? It was as if God were asking, “Solomon, son of David, do you love me above all things? Now, let’s see how you pray…”

I kinda wished the reader had stopped for a minute after God’s offer so we could’ve formulated our own response… What would I ask of God?

Solomon passed with flying colors! “The Lord was pleased,” the text says. Why? Because his prayer sought from God what was dearest to God’s heart. He, God’s vicar, sought from God the gift of wisdom to rightly govern His beloved people, and did not seek gifts for himself (long life, riches) or the death of his enemies. Solomon’s prayer recognized that, as king, he was God’s servant. His was only a borrowed glory, a shared governance. So he sought God’s wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge of God’s will (i.e the Law) that is applied through prudential judgment to order one’s own life and the lives of others in accord with that will. The king loves the King principally by ruling faithfully in the King’s stead. Wisdom means ordering our steps in His Word.

[lyrics below]

Jesus, the New Solomon and Wisdom incarnate, teaches us that perfect wisdom is found in the Great Commandment, as charity is the fulfillment of the Law. The wise leader, therefore, shepherds the rabble of sinful humanity into the order of charity, forming them into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). A parent, priest, principal, president tasked with this mission knows it is a brutal, thankless, exhausting task, indeed.

I just noticed Jesus’ thrice posed question to Simon Peter (John 21:15-19) bears a striking resemblance to God’s question to Solomon. Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Of course, Simon Peter vehemently insists that he does love Jesus, but Jesus presses the question further by drawing out its implications — if you love me you will govern those I love, wisely, according to my will: “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.”  And in John 21:18-19 Jesus reminds Peter where the wisdom of charity leads every leader:

When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter passed on the soul of this sage advice to his pastoral successors in 1 Peter 5:1-4. A brutal, thankless, exhausting task, as Pope Francis can no doubt attest. Yet it is a sublimely divine task, as God’s providential laboring love ceaselessly governs, guards, guides and provides for our sorry lot. The burden of leadership, carrying others to God (Numbers 11:14/Luke 15:5) offers ample opportunity for intimate union with the Good Shepherd in our exhaustion, making wise leaders into bleary-eyed, weary-headed, aching-shouldered mystics. Especially: speaking to God about those under our care, tirelessly presenting their needs to Him, is profoundly sanctifying as it very immediately mingles our concern for them with His. And in the end, sanctity is all about melding the whole tangle of our inner and outer lives with His, into a grand + alignment.

It’s why “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to justice, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

A woman I know who has five children, four with serious to severe disabilities, texted me earlier this summer asking for prayers after some rough days they’d had with hospital visits. I texted back: “Man, y’all have had a hard stretch this year.” She replied, “Yup, they exhaust me and wear me out. But God knows I’ll take exhausted with them over rested without them any day.” I texted back the Hebrew word for worship, Shâchâh, which means “face in dirt,” and told her I was doing that after reading her text. For me, heroism makes me want to #1 repent and #2 worship God for giving the world such people.

Yesterday afternoon I met another woman, the cashier at a gas station. When I asked her how she was she said, “Tired and blessed.” I said, “I love that you said ‘and blessed,’ and not ‘but blessed.'” She then told me she worked two other jobs, that her husband died last Fall, leaving her to raise three children and her deceased brother’s son. I said, “What keeps you going?” She replied with such a natural ease, pointing to the cross on her neck chain, “Real simple. Him. He did it for me so I can do it for Him. My kids know I’m only as good as I’m in His grace.” My daughter who was with me said as we walked out, “Wow that was totally random and amazing.”

Shâchâh. 

As Fr. Tom Hopko said, “Some saints are pillars of the world, while others, like me, become saints by allowing those saints to lead us along the way. It’s why devotion to saints in the Orthodox church is absolutely essential. It’s God’s way of keeping us totally inter-dependent. If all were pillars we wouldn’t cling to each other. A Christian alone is no Christian.”

As I sit with all of this here, I can’t help but reflect on the gravity of my vocation as a family man and as a teacher. I have to be like Solomon and ceaselessly beg God for wisdom and to intercede in prayer for those entrusted to my care, who are under my authority or subject to my influence. When I was on my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my 80+ year old spiritual director called me on the carpet for not praying for my wife and children by name every day. I told him I always mentioned “for my wife and family” when I prayed. But he wasn’t buying it and retorted, “The Shepherd wants names, son. And He wants details.” He continued, “God has entrusted them to your care, Tom, and He will call you to account for it. You can’t manage this one alone. You must realize that their welfare depends just as much on your prayer as it does on your supporting them in every other way. The closer people are to your circle of responsibility, the more serious is your obligation to daily pray for them by name, and pray for God to help you to serve them as they deserve. And,” he added, “you need to ask the Spirit for a double portion of wisdom and counsel because your responsibility is great and you know you’re not too bright when it comes to prudential matters.” We laughed, and then he said, “But I’m serious.”

He ended his loving reproval by saying to me, “Tom, what’s most beautiful to me about intercessory prayer is that even as you ask God to care for others, He invites you to be part of the care He gives. When you ask God to stir into action for others, you’ll feel Him stirring within you. So be careful what you ask for. You just might become it.”

When evening came, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds, so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” “They do not need to go away,” Jesus replied. “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:15-16).

Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz:

Our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness.

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Humbly, I ask Thee teach me Your will
While You are working, help me be still
‘Cos Satan is busy, God is real;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Bridle my tongue let my Words edify
Let the Words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight
Take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

CHORUS
I want to walk worthy
According to Thy will
Please order my steps Lord
And I’ll do Your blessed will
The world is ever changing
But You are still the same;
Please order my steps, Lord I’ll praise Your name

Order my steps in Your Word
Order my tongue in Your Word
Guide my feet in Your Word
Wash my heart in Your Word
Show me how to walk in Your Word
Show me how to talk in Your Word
When I need a brand new song to sing
Show me how to let Your praises ring
In your Word (2x)

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

REPEAT CHORUS ( 2 X )

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

“Pray out of your pain”

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Back in the late 1980’s, I attended an Orthodox church for Sunday liturgy fairly consistently. The congregation was composed of a wide variety of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Greeks, Georgians, Serbs and Russians. The vast majority were first or second generation immigrants from the Soviet Union, and many of these had fled religious persecution. The priest was second generation Russian. Being Roman Catholic, it was for me like being in another world each week I was there, both in terms of the lavish Eastern liturgy and the ethnic-cultural distance between me and them. And for all that I was greatly enriched.

One thing that came up frequently in conversation was the character of Christian faith in countries where belief was tagged with a high cost. People, especially the older women, would make me vividly aware of how different their view of life was because of all they and their families had to endure back in the U.S.S.R. I especially remember one conversation I had with an elderly Siberian woman. That day there was a visiting priest who was newly ordained, and he had preached a fiery homily on the upcoming Great Week (their Holy Week). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. After the liturgy in the social hall, I was speaking with this matushka and asked her if she liked his preaching. She said, with steely eyes looking straight into mine:

It was pretty. Yes. But he does not know of what he speaks. He has not yet suffered. You Americans, no offense, but you do not know how to suffer. You seem to see pain as something to run from. That makes you shallow. Pain is unavoidable and depth of soul requires suffering. It digs down, no? We Russians, we know suffering. And it makes of us both angels and demons, one or the other depending whether you have love or not. And we have many demons in Russia now because there is little love with the Communists.

Although at the time I found her words off-putting, over the years I see more and more the radical truth of what she said. I myself stood and stand indicted. I later shared her words with the Orthodox pastor at this parish and he said he considered this woman to be a staritsa (wise elder) and a saint. He said, “If you want to learn how to pray, ask her. She is prayer. I sought her out when I first arrived here, on the advice of the deacon, and she told me: ‘Father, when you can make your pain a prayer, when you learn to groan with the Spirit, to pray in agony with Jesus, you know pure prayer. Everything is to become prayer, but pain speaks to God most eloquently. Like arrow prayers. Don’t pray always your pain away. Pray out of your pain. Through your pain. Don’t fear it.” He then shared with me the quote from the Russian saint deeply loved in the Orthodox world, Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not.”

Fr. Walter J. Ciszek was a Jesuit priest who suffered unspeakable hardships during the 23 years he endured forced hard labor, psychological torture and abuse in Russian prison camps. His autobiographical book, He Leadeth Me, is a stunning spiritual treasury that I recommend to all who are trying to relate faith and suffering. I will leave you with a few of his words as a concluding meditation in keeping with the treasury of Russian spiritual wisdom:

Although, as God, he needed no glorification, as man, he did bring about the glorification of his human body through his final suffering. He rose because He died; he was glorified because he suffered. He could have had the glory and the peace and the unending joy in his body at any time, because he was God and he had a right to it. But the fact remains that he had none of these things until after he suffered. We have many, many examples from the life of Christ, but there is none greater than his suffering. He taught you and me how to live with it. If he cried, cannot we? If he showed hurt in his life, cannot we? If he begged to be relieved, cannot we? If he even complained to God, will God punish us if, in the midst of our hurt or pain, we complain to him, Our Father? No.

If we can surrender to such a prayer in truth, we can dare pray Psalm 22 with the Jews:

Wisdom

patheos.com

I had a conversation with a monk yesterday. His gracious demeanor encouraged me to say to him, “Can I speak with you.” He agreed and we sat down in one of the parlors. If I had to guess, I’d say he is around 80 years old.

I asked him questions. Lots. His responses were delivered very matter of factly, without much affect, though at times with a wry smile, which made them even more penetrating to me. Here are some of them, apart from the questions, as I meditatively wrote them down later.

Yes, I came to this monastery more recently. 1968.

I tell young men who express interest in our life, “If you’re ready to work 9 hours a day six days a week, pray 7 times a day, be a vegetarian, live in close community the rest of your life with the same brothers and become a saint by battling temptation to the very end (I tell them this because they can think coming here rids them of worldly temptation), then come and see who we are.” I tell them that the early desert monks called monastic life the “martyrdom of conscience,” because our martyrdom is within. If God is calling them, all of this will give them joy. If not, then not. Some these days just seem interested in whether we are an orthodox community or not, but I say this is not enough of a reason, i.e. that we are orthodox. You must be ready to die to yourself and follow the Lord.

Be careful, your prayer can become so introspective. How well am I praying? How far along am I? Am I progressing? How is God acting in my soul right now? Why don’t I feel anything? Why am I feeling this? Is that God speaking to me? What did He say? Though we might do this kind of thing with our spiritual director to get his wisdom, or maybe at the end of the day we might reflect on what happened. But if we do this frequently in our prayer time, than it is no longer prayer that we are about. It’s navel gazing. True prayer gets lost in God. Is about God. Or gets lost in the needs of those we pray to God for — though even then it’s about God as we speak to Him of them. Prayer is not a time for self-analysis or for conjuring up the right emotions that please us. That is exhausting! We speak to God, we ponder His Word, we listen in silence knowing that His voice comes to us primarily not in ideas or words but in its effects in us — joy, peace, courage, patience, chastity, a desire to forgive, a willingness to carry the cross.

As you grow in maturity in prayer, you stop overthinking what’s happening or not happening in prayer. Like learning to ride a bike, you know you have mastered it when you no longer think about all the details of how to do this or what this feels like. You just do it. You forget about yourself and the bike. The bike becomes part of you, second nature.

Prayer is not some sacred thing you do amid all of your other secular activities. Prayer is just part of your life, your whole life. Prayer is life turned upward. It’s woven into everything as you are speaking with God, listening to His voice, sensing His presence all around you. In everything. Not just sweet and nice things. But in everything. Dullness, monotony, celebration, liturgy, illness, manual labor, study, manning the cash register in the gift shop. Us right now speaking. He is here. Can’t you sense it? Nothing special about what we’re doing. He’s just here.

During the prayer time set aside each day, which you must, you use a prayer method to develop a habitual disposition that spills out into all of life. During these times you practice riding the bike, and when you get up from that prayer time to go into life you just ride the bike. St. Augustine says, “To pray without ceasing you must pray often.” This is what he means. You practice methods consistently and frequently and then all of your life catches the rhythm.

It’s easy to use prayer for things other than God. We use it to get feelings, to get results, to give us peace of mind, or for some cause we believe in. All good things. But these can’t be the point of prayer. Too easily prayer can become a subtle or not so subtle attempt to manipulate God. To use God to get what we want, to be on our side. No matter how good. We think we know already what God wants to happen and how He wants it to happen, and now we will use prayer to make it happen. And if it does not happen we become disappointed or angry, because what we wanted was not His will but ours. In the three temptations of Jesus in the desert, Satan wanted Jesus to use prayer; to use the Father to get pre-determined results. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggles between getting the result He would like — “let this cup pass” — and surrendering to the Father’s will — the crucifixion.

If you are praying for your enemies, for your ideological opponents, the greatest result of that prayer is not simply their conversion but your deepening love for them. That even as they make life harder for you, you find yourself deepening in compassion and mercy toward them. Maybe even loving them the way St Paul did and wishing that you were cursed and cut off from Christ if only they could be joined to Him [Rom. 9:3!]. The point is that prayer that is truly about God makes you like God.

This is a remarkable thing. Gethsemane means that all prayer offered to God is answered, responded to — without exception — but the divine response is surprising. Unexpected. Pope Francis frequently says this. But every divine response always leads to resurrection. To an unexpected good that surpasses what we thought was best before. God’s answers to prayer come both in this world and in the world to come — multi-dimensional. So much of what our prayer obtains we simply cannot see. We can’t see all of the dimensions God acts in. Prayer that is able to consent to God’s surprising answers is true prayer. Yes, I still must ask, beg God for whatever it is I see as good — “let this cup pass” — but I must also allow God to choose how He wishes to deal with the cup I speak with Him about. In Jesus’ resurrection, the cup overflowed beyond what was only good for Jesus Himself in the moment and flowed out into all of humanity. The Eucharist is the overflowing cup. But if Jesus had only been satisfied with being spared of the cup of suffering, we would have nothing to drink from to give us eternal life.

Such a mystery, God!

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.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” — 1 Cor 6:19

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Happy Pentecost! A special shout-out to Thom and Heather Jordan on this nearly 20-year anniversary of their Profession of Faith, Confirmation and First Communion, from their sponsors who love them and think they and their family all rock. Isn’t it awesome that our Catholic Church is spread over so much territory? Plenty of breathing room for charity to grow.

Okay…

Today the Paschal Mystery comes to a wrap as the power of the dead and risen Jesus falls down from the Father and explodes in Jerusalem to make the whole cosmos into a City of God.

The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onward. The Holy Spirit with His gifts guides the Church. You cannot understand the Church of Jesus without this Paraclete, whom the Lord sends us for this very reason. And He makes unthinkable possible, the unimaginable imaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates [aggiornamento] the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going. And we Christians must ask the Lord for the grace of docility to the Holy Spirit. Docility in this Spirit, who speaks to us in our heart, who speaks to us in all of life’s circumstances, who speaks to us in the Church’s life, in Christian communities, who is always speaking to us.” — Pope Francis

Back in 1987 I went through a “Life in the Spirit” seminar and was prayed over for an unleashing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was powerful for me at what was really the beginning of my faith journey. I did not experience the gift of tongues or words of knowledge or other charismatic gifts often hailed by both Pentecostals and Catholics in the Charismatic Renewal as premier signs of “baptism in the Spirit.”  What I did experience, though, was a very intense and sustained awareness of what is often called the “indwelling” of the Spirit (cf 1 Cor. 6:19). In fact, I remember when one of the members of the prayer group I had joined quoted St. Augustine, I thought to myself, “That’s exactly  it!” He told me Augustine said, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” [Actually what Augustine really said is even more lovely and poetic in Latin and English: Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, “Higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”]

God is more interior, “closer” to my innermost self precisely because He communicates to my “self” existence at every second. God is “beneath me,” the “ground of my being,” as the Rhineland theologians of the 15th century loved to say. But God is also insanely close to us because He desires to unite Him-self with our-self. Not united at the superficial levels of our consciousness, but at the source, the core, the origin of who “I” am, the personal spring from which my deepest identity emerges. In other words, God wishes to get dangerously close to my heart, to what makes me who I am as an absolutely unique individual person; to the place where I am stripped of all pretense and deception and empty show and defense mechanisms. There, in that most intimate and supremely vulnerable space within me, where I am “naked,” God wishes to gain entry to become one with me, opening His Heart and Person just as unreservedly to me as He asks me to open to Him.

Whoa.

After that personal experience of the Spirit’s indwelling, of a heightened awareness of my body being His temple, I suddenly became more aware of my words and actions as being done in the presence of God. I developed what I might call an acute case of “holy fear of the Lord,” i.e. a tremendous sense of reverence, awe, fear of offending God who dwelt within. Fear of “grieving the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). That holy fear has never left me in 30 years. In fact, my resolution to give up cussing permanently after my initial conversion experience in 1987 was sealed by this new awareness. I had developed a very foul mouth when I was 13 or so, but after my conversion experience I instinctively knew I had to stop though no one had asked me to.

While I am making this point, let me share a very personal grace I received from the Spirit in that regard six years ago. As I have a bad memory these days, so I cannot recall if I have ever shared it here.

Although I had given up cussing in 1987, and was almost 100% effective in keeping my commitment in the subsequent years, inside of me there was a sewer of language that assailed me night and day. All of the memories and habits of a childhood surrounded by cursing, and years of practicing it with abandon, remained in me. It was especially bad when I would pray. But, at the encouragement of my spiritual director, I had long ago accepted it as a lifelong penance for my sins and the sins of others, and I tried to make the best of it.

In 2011 I went to Confession to a priest who was, by chance, also an exorcist. I had never met him before this. I never mentioned to him my inner struggle with vulgarity, but he himself brought it up — which was a bit disconcerting. Just after absolution he put a crucifix on my head and prayed something like this: “Lord, you know your son here has long struggled with the spirit of blasphemy. And he has been faithful. And now you wish to free him from this so he can worship you in purity of mind and heart.” Later that day, I immediately thought of Exodus 7:16.

It was absolutely astonishing, and I could never explain to anyone what happened with adequate clarity. But I can say that from that moment on, till this day, I have never again been assailed in my mind by vulgarity. While I can call to mind curse words at will, they never present themselves to me. I knew immediately, as soon as he finished praying, that it was gone. I told him so, and he said: “The Lord, the Spirit of freedom, wanted you to first struggle all those years to make you ready to receive this grace. Otherwise it would not be your own, be part of you.” He added, “You know that vulgar and blasphemous words, especially the f-word, are the lingua franca of the demons in an exorcism. Just think of the one time you hear of a disciple using curses — St Peter denying Jesus [Matt. 26:74]. A good sign that Christians should avoid them. A salty word is fine to spice things up now and again, but perverse and blasphemous language that offends God and human dignity are not. We live in a very vulgar culture, which is a symptom of spiritual decay. God wishes Christians to be signs of contradiction that remind the world that we will be judged one day by the way we used the gift of language God gave us to resemble His Word. Go in peace, son.”

O Spirit of Freedom, Spirit who makes of my body your temple, come and abide with me forever. Give me the mind and heart of Jesus and make His prayer my own: “Abba! Father!” Amen.

Saint of Joy

St. Philip stepping on a Cardinal hat

Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri, 16th century Italian reformer-priest who was known for his joy, sense of humor and offbeat spirit. Philip, patron saint of comedians, demonstrates wonderfully how sanctity preserves and amplifies, even as it purifies, the unique character of each person’s personality. I have always loved this saint and begged for a double-portion of his spirit.

He is the saint known for telling jokes in the confessional to break the tension, throwing picnics in the middle of the street between visits to churches, breaking out into silly children’s songs in the presence of stuffy cardinals, shaving off half his beard before a meeting with a wealthy Roman family, walking out of the Confessional laughing uncontrollably, kicking balls through the streets of Rome dressed in his cassock as he skipped and sang with his followers, carrying bouquets of flowers and distributing them as he went along, intentionally mispronouncing Latin words in the Mass in the presence of a gravely serious scholar-bishop, making a priest in his Order who took himself too seriously sing a dirge at a wedding breakfast, wearing red jerseys over his black cassock, giving out crazy penances (e.g. to a priest known for eloquence, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon) and tossing around like a frisbee the cardinal hat offered him by the Pope.

Thank God we have this saint!

But what made this man a saint and not simply a cut-up was his deep humility and his intense love for God and people. His humor was never used to knock down, cut or wound, but to build up and wake up a sleepy church. To thaw out the Frozen Chosen. He was a Fool for Christ whose prophetic mission was to remind the faithful that joy, as Fr. Chardin once said, is the infallible sign of the presence of God and the premier indication that your spiritual life is in good order. His jovial manner was lived in service to lifting hearts and leading others into a place of light, hope and conversion to the Gospel of joy. Above all, he wanted to free the Roman clergy from the shackles of cynicism, ladder climbing and dour seriousness that confuses solemnity with somberness.

Once while he was praying on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1544 a globe of fire appeared in front of him and entered his mouth. Afterwards, he felt his heart swell in his chest — without pain — and was so overwhelmed by an intense feeling of love for God that he fell to the ground yelling, “Enough, enough, Lord! I can bear no more!” It became immediately apparent to him that the superabundance of joy that filled him was meant to be given away, shared with all he would meet along the way. He had been commissioned to be “drunk with love” (Acts 2:13-15!) by the God whose love is joy, to permit divine joy to break into a world grown old, bitter, tired and angry in sin.

Philip the priest-saint is an electric sign to clergy. How desperately we need deacons and priests and bishops and popes who ingest Fire and are filled with joy, whose lives — uniquely — cry out to both church and world: Sursum corda! “Lift up your hearts!”

In the words of Pope Benedict addressing his fellow clergy:

It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.

Let us sing!

Jubilate Deo omni terra (shout joyfully to God all the earth).
Servite Domino in laetitia (serve the Lord in gladness).
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!

“Without Sunday, we cannot…”

[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:

One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.

To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.

It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.

So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.

And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.

If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.

And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!

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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:

It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.

I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.

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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:

When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.

When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.

What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.

That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!

I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]

Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.

Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift: