O come, O come!

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I gave an Advent parish mission last week. Among the topics I covered, I explored the depth of meaning in a verse we sing so often that we forget what it’s really saying:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This is the plaintive cry of a slave living in exile, begging God to come and liberate. We have a planet filled with such cries, yet without the faith to turn them into prayer. The confident “Rejoice!” of the refrain, filled with certain hope, is only possible when the depth of the plight is fully acknowledged and then brought to God in prayer. Packed into the seemingly placid “O come” is a world of pain, sorrow, hardship, fear, anger, desperation, turned by faith into hope in love that gives wings to prayer.

During the mission, I shared stories of people I have known who have taught me how to pray like this. I shared with them a conversation I had with an Orthodox Rabbi who told me Jews pray not just from the heart, but from the guts; from the depths (Psalm 130). The last prayer of Jesus on the cross was a phōnēn megalēn, a “loud scream” (Mark 15:37), and the next verse says the veil in the Temple was torn. Such prayer rips open heaven.

The word Advent comes from the same Latin root that is found in the Our Father, adveniat regnum tuum, “thy kingdom come.” Advent means, “come!” and so as a season is meant to carve out in us a hunger, thirst, longing, yearning, pining for God to come and save us, rescue us, redeem us, raise us, ransom us. So, I argued, the harder and darker life gets, Christians should more and more become an Advent people “who cry to Him day and night” (Luke 18:7).

And as this season can be hard for many people, Advent is meant to bring to their hardship the brilliance of costly hope gained in deep, sustained and honest prayer to God.

A person followed up the retreat with an email to me saying simply, “Thank you for giving me permission to bring my pain and doubt to God. That’s a new faith for me.” I sent them this lovely version of my second favorite psalm, the brutally honest Psalm 77.

I cry aloud to God
aloud to God and He will hear me
In the day of my troubled soul
I reach out and seek You, Lord
but I can’t feel You

In the night of my pain
darkness falls, questions rage
Have You forsaken?
O God, have You left me all alone?

You keep my eyes from sleep
so troubled I cannot speak a word
I consider the days of old
when I felt Your love and held Your hope
Where have they gone?

In the night of my pain
faith has fled, doubts remain
Have you forsaken?
O God, have You left me all alone?

Your ways, O God
Your ways, O God, are holy
Holy

Your ways, O God
Your ways, O God, are holy
You are holy

A Small Step

Mustard seed

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. — Pope Francis

My sagely grandfather once wrote me in a letter, “Never be discouraged by your shortcomings, Tommy. Use them to stretch your soul. Remember, your greatest virtues are not those that come naturally but ones nearly impossible to perform. Holding a sharp tongue once far surpasses in worth a surplus of easily spoken kind words. Cracking a feeble smile from a dim soul to lift an ignoble lout vastly outshines the outpouring of exuberant joy from a bright heart lavished on a cheery friend. Value the difficult good things in life most. Every day, your next best step.”

That’s writing.

So often people who strive to live a life of faith share with me a deep exasperation over their inability to do all the good they wish, pray as they would hope, forgive as they must, be patient as they desire, and so on. They are hemmed in by a thousand limits, internal and external, and become discouraged, frustrated, angry, guilt-ridden. I understand this so well. Yet the beauty of our God! Revealed for who-He-is in a cradle and on a cross, He is irresistibly drawn to small spaces, inconvenient circumstances, tiny mustard seeds. He, lover of the Widow’s Mite, dances over fitful acts of faith, hope and love. He is absurdly pleased with our pathetic nothings, born of heartfelt sincerity, steeped in reckless trust, all the while surrendered to His boundless mercy.

I know a Catholic woman with lots of children who felt for years like she was a failure in her spiritual life because of her inability to make any significant time for focused prayer or to muster any meaningful feelings of devotion when she finally found time. She said guilt and anger became her primary spiritual disposition toward God. Then she met a contemplative Carmelite nun in Rhode Island to whom she confided her struggle. She said the nun floored her when she said, “What God gives to me in 6 hours of prayer a day, He gives to you in the few minutes you consecrate to Him. The joy He takes in my silent contemplation is exceeded by the joy He takes in your harried frustration, given over to Him. Your desire to please Him renders all of the walls around you into an iconostasis.”

What.

The woman said to me, “Those words are what I call my ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was let out of my prison of guilt that day.”

This made me think of 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s tender words, “God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love Him. He accepts our petitions as benefits as though we were doing Him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving.”

So when you feel most useless, helpless, feckless, aimless, wrap it up in faith, light it up with hope and send it up with love into the Heart of God. But be ready. Out of that pierced Heart floods a raging fountain of mercy, and mercy takes no prisoners.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Tempted by Good

[re-post from 2015]

A few scattered thoughts today taken from old notes I have from a series on discernment I taught back in the 1990s.

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A Missionary of Charity Sister at the Gift of Peace home for the homeless and dying in Washington, D.C. once shared with me something she said Mother Teresa taught the M.C. Sisters. I’ve always found it helpful:

The devil very often tempts the good with good things, so that good people, distracted by things they should not be doing, compromise the few good things they should be doing. So instead of doing what they’ve been called to do well, they do many good things God never asked them to do, and poorly.

I am convinced from personal experience that the greater part of good discernment is not discerning what to do but what not to do. Frequently in my experience that’s the origin of burnout, bitterness and disillusionment among good-willed people who are not careful to observe limits and remain in them. Many lurking motives drive people’s departure into diversionary good-deeds that exceed healthy limits, including: (1) fleeing from emotional pain in other parts of life, (2) being driven by guilt, (3) fear of confronting others with a “no” or (4) the compulsive need for approval and praise from others.

That’s why the “discerning life” is crucial, which daily examines not only what good should be done, but why it should be done and what good fruits one should look to see. According to Fr. Jordan Aumann, good fruits especially important to see include the enhancement of one’s primary vocational commitments, peace and joy, while bad fruits include distraction from one’s primary vocational commitments, inner restlessness, confusion, obsessiveness and doubt. While the virtue of zeal (passion in doing good for God) keeps us in hot pursuit of excellence, the virtue of meekness (recognizing and embracing one’s limited role in the Body of Christ) resists the temptation to always be restless, unsettled, unsatisfied with the limits of one’s present life-mission; always itching for “something else.” Surface-skimming dilettantes, who balk or flee at the first sign of adversity, opposition or boredom, fail to recognize and seize the opportunities to sink deep roots of virtue into the present moment.

Opportunities for greatness, like the commandments of God, are never far out of reach for the meek:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. — Exodus 30:11-14

Years ago my spiritual director said to me:

Over the years I have moved from doing more than I should, to being content with doing all that is possible, to simply embracing what I’ve been called by God to do. And I discovered that, beneath my evasion of God’s will was not just pride but sloth.

As I was unfamiliar with what sloth meant in that regard, he shared with me St. John of the Cross’ words on sloth. This vantage, he said, helped him immensely in his growth embracing the “reality God,” as he put it, and not the “fantasy God.”

Since [the slothful] are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them — they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly. Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will. As a result they strive to satisfy their own will rather than God’s. Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.

Beginners also become bored when told to do something unpleasant. Because they look for spiritual gratifications and delights, they are extremely lax in the fortitude and labor perfection demands. Like those who are reared in luxury, they run sadly from everything rough, and they are scandalized by the cross, in which spiritual delights are found. And in the more spiritual exercises their boredom is greater. Since they expect to go about in spiritual matters according to the whims and satisfactions of their own will, entering by the narrow way of life, about which Christ speaks, is saddening and repugnant to them.

Holy Spirit, lead me in the way of your will…

The One who answers the cry

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

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

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

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

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

Again, I think of Augustine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacraments of beauty’s protest

Earlier this week I made time to shabbat, to “cease” my non-stop life and attend to the immediate, the present, the here and now, in order to look at all God has made and say with Him, “Very good.”

After watching the sunrise with a stiff east wind caressing my face, and driving my daughters to play practice, I went to a local bookstore to read one of my favorite books.

For 2 hours.

20,000 different species of butterfly. Flowers in flight refracting divine de-light.

For me they have always been sacraments of beauty’s protest, gracefully yielding against the unyielding, rebellious, predatory designs of as-yet unredeemed nature. Icons of the glory to be revealed, per Romans 8:18-30. They transform from caterpillars who steal and destroy to live, into butterflies who feed only on what is freely offered to them and, by pollinating, give back the gift of new life.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed [metamorphoumetha] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18)

I remember as a child watching a blue jay eat a still-fluttering sulphur butterfly on the sidewalk, swallowing the body and leaving on the ground two perfect yellow wings. Lifeless beauty laid on a concrete sepulcher. I recall being profoundly sad, but only sitting still, as if waiting for something unexpected to happen. Beneath the crush of violence, beauty still gently smiled. How could God not act? I sat and looked, wondering if there would be a heaven for butterflies. There to live again, soaring their immortal protest.

To God they soar, I’m certain of it, as “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

When I am discouraged, weary, disheartened, disillusioned, I pull out my book and remember: Butterflies are. Like the Seraphim, existing there only to sing with colors the splendor of divine Beauty.

After I left the bookstore, I went to visit the levee. They were everywhere, dancing in the sky under the brilliant sun, skipping from flower to flower. And I remembered my mom reading to me Trina Paulus’ Hope for the Flowers when I was small. If you recall, the caterpillar exclaimed with hope,

“We can fly!
We can become butterflies!
There’s nothing at the top
and it doesn’t matter!”
As he heard his own
message he realized how
he had misread the instinct
to get high.
To get to the “top” he
must fly, not climb.

I flew in praise! Praise, that most ‘useless’ of prayers, without a ‘why’ other than to declare Beauty’s endangered appearing. Thank you, O God, for deeming the risk worthwhile, for us and for our salvation.

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colors, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age   — Glory to God for All Things

“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.