Open me, revisited

I don’t usually reflect back on a previous post, but I had to this time.

The prayer I composed and then posted Sunday morning has had so much impact on me since then. Praying it, I mean, has had a strange power. And some of the comments I received via text, email and here indicated the same for a few others. It’s a very simple prayer. And maybe that’s the secret.

But today in class I had another insight. I taught the seminarians about the epiclesis at Mass, the “calling out” to the Father asking that He send His Holy Spirit to come down on the gifts of bread and wine and transform them into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. In other words, we ask the Father to give us everything we seek, i.e. the Christ-bearing Spirit.

Epiclesis, I told my students, is what a baby does when she’s hungry, what a man in pain does when he needs help, what a grieving woman does when she wants to wail aloud her pain in the arms of a compassionate loved one. It is an open-ended cry of the poor and needy, a cry of yearning and hope, a cry of trust, expectation and faith that there is an other who hears, loves, cares, and will respond.

God cannot resist faith (Luke 8:46).

I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up from the land of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it. — Psalm 81:11

Friends of mine adopted a child from Romania many years ago, and the state representative they worked with said, “When this child was taken from the orphanage, they said there was an eerie silence. He and the other infants with him had all stopped crying. They’d given up hope of a response.”

In the brightest days or darkest moments, never cease to cry out, to open every crevice of your life to the tender Father who always, always hears our cry. And responds.

Open me

Sorry it’s been so long. Here’s a prayer that came to me early this morning as I prayed at sunrise….

Tender Father,
open my mind
to your Word.
Open my heart
to your Spirit.
Open my memory
to your mercies.
Open my eyes
to your light.
Open my affections
to your beauty.
Open my sufferings
to your compassion.
Open my joys
to your delight.
Open my fears
to your provision.
Open my hunger
to your bread.
Open my thirst
to your wine.
Open my senses
to your glory.
Open my wounds
to your cross.
Open my sin
to your pardon.
Open my pride
to your humility.
Open my power
to your weakness.
Open my weakness
to your power.
Open my poverty
to your abundance.
Open my abundance
to your poverty.
Open my prayer
to your silence.
Open my hands
to your people.
Open my mouth
to your praise.
Open my will
to your command.
Open my life
to your love.
Amen.

 

Pentecostal Poem

By Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Pentecost, 1983. globalworship.tumblr.com

This poem came to me the 8th day of the Pentecost Novena.

Come!
My being is longing
carved out by your desire
O King of all the ages
O Tongue of living Fire.
You come down to knit
to wed my life to His
and His to that of all
that was, will be and is.
O Christ-bearing Love
unseen Light unsetting
fall on our parchèd flesh
by your Dewfall wetting
turning desert into garden
our death to eternal life
our sin teeming with grace
ending every hatred and strife.
Come now! Make haste
to bring creation’s End
by healing mortal wounds
our seamless garment,
Mend.

You have so many defects

“If you have so many defects, why are you surprised to find defects in others?” ― St. Josemaría Escrivá

My grandfather once wrote me in a letter titled, “What is a Great Man?”,

…Great men never gossip to harm another’s name and reputation. You may speak about someone in their absence, but only if you are prepared to tell them to their face the same. Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t like, and then happily pass it along. Just be aware that anyone worthy of respect will immediately lose respect for you when you gossip to them…

Why do we find such relish in passing on news of another’s failure, malice, idiocy? Is it because it makes us feel superior, distracts attention from our issues, feeds our envy or soothes our own insecurities? Or maybe it creates a sense of belonging with others because we seem to share a common loathing of some person or group? I have always found that the best litmus test for how out of touch I am with my own crap is how freely I engage in gossip about others’ crap.

Jesus directly confronted this deep-seated human tendency in the Sermon on the Mount, and prescribed the remedy:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Know thyself! Self-knowledge, explored under the light of divine grace, has unlimited potential to make us humble, compassionate and patient with others’ faults and failings. I am riddled with faults and failings, sins and vices, and when I find myself dealt with mercifully by the God who forgives and forgets, and does not gossip about me behind my back, I beg Him for the chance to practice the same toward the most irritating or offensive person I can find.

For people of faith, the premier path to such self-knowledge is prayerful reflection on one’s own life and actions in the light of the commandments, and in the light of Christ and His teaching. Christ alone reveals to us who we were made to be and does not simply canonize our mediocrity. And if you ask Him in prayer to be honest with you about you as you examine/examen your life? Well, let’s just say He loves answering that prayer.

But another indispensable path to self-knowledge is an honest and trustworthy friend, parent, sibling, spouse, mentor, confidante with whom you can be brutally honest about yourself, and to whom you grant full permission to be brutally honest right back atcha. By my lonesome, I have an unlimited capacity for self-deception and rationalization, and an even better knack for finding people who will aid and abet me in realizing this delusive capacity.

Praying the litany of humility is good, if dangerous, but even better is allowing flesh-and-blood others to lead me to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth that is real humility.

How often do you say to a trusted other, “Be totally honest, what do I need to be aware of, work on, deal with, face?” And then listen non-defensively and act proactively? When you do, please pray for that honest person whom you so desperately need, and thank God for them. And then pay it forward, with love, confidence and courage. The world will be better for it.

When my gods died

Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us …

It is very odd that so much casual Christian thinking should be worship of Satan, that we should think of the punitive satanic God as the only God available to the sinner. It is very odd that the view of God as seen from the church should ever be simply the view of God as seen from hell. For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin.

When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. — Herbert McCabe, O.P.

I remember not long after my return to the faith, I was plagued with terrible guilt as the whole mass of my twisted lifestyle was suddenly placed, so to speak, in the light of God. So many of the behaviors and attitudes that had never for even a moment bothered me before now became branding irons that seemed to burn in me the voice of God, saying, “You Suck.” Those were exactly the words I heard in my mind when I would pray.

For a while, it was so bad that I started to dread prayer and Mass, the very things that in the first weeks after my conversion gave me such hope and joy. They only served to dredge up the darkness. Who needs that?

During my break from school during the summer of 1987, I went for the first time in my life, at the suggestion of a priest, on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. The first day there was torture, as all of my past assailed me and I felt God hated me as I was. I decided to go to Confession to one of the monks, even though I suspected — feared — that it would only confirm my newfound self-loathing.

In fact, it turned my inner world inside out and upside down.

After sharing with him my sins and the searing guilt, he said, “Young man, it’s time to let your gods die. Dispose of your idol factory. I don’t think you have yet met the real God. He is here now, in this place. Do you sense Him? Turn toward Him now and give Him all your gods.” He pointed to the crucifix on the wall, and continued, “Here is the true God, Jesus Christ. He died for you, not to judge or condemn you, but to save you from your worst enemy: you. He is not hate, but love. He loved you before you were conceived. His love for you is so great, He even renounced His omniscience and has forgotten all of your sins. You’re the only one holding on to them.”

It was like being drenched beneath a massive waterfall of mercy, tenderness, kindness, gentleness, love. As he absolved, my guilt dissolved. It was so clear to me in that moment that the distortions my life, and my life choices, had etched into my soul warped my vision of God. In an instant, the god of me-writ-large was shattered by my encounter with the God of gods. And though this experience did not liberate me from all struggles in the future, it did radically expose lies that would likely have led me to hide from God forever.

At the end of his advice, the monk said to me, “Be aware that you will always be tempted to made a god out of your emotions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking God is angry and disappointed when you’re feeling guilty or depressed, or God is happy when you’re feeling optimistic and upbeat.” He again pointed to the crucifix, saying, “When you sin, stand facing Him. This crucified God is always mercy and love toward you, eternally. When you say, ‘Lord, have mercy’ you are simply saying, ‘God, be who you are toward me!’ But when you turn away from Him, and stand facing away from Him, you will get lost in the hissing mass of those who mocked and condemned Him.”

He handed me Chotki beads, and said, “This is your prayer from now on.” The Jesus Prayer…

Creation playing to an empty house: Never!

Photo my wife took while I was watching the sunset

We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house. — Annie Dillard

Not unlike many people who were children before the age of smartphones, my very first memories are connected with noticing things in nature that seemed to the adults around me hidden or unimportant — things like ants, bees, spiders, mites, butterfly eggs, tadpoles, damselflies, or the wildly complex ecosystems hidden under rocks and logs. My dad used to love to remind me that, when I was two or three years old, I would spend countless hours sitting beside ant mounds, transfixed in rapt silence. I do remember vividly, in fact, how I took the greatest pleasure in noticing the work each ant did in the colony, excavating grains of sand, dragging in freshly killed insects, or guarding the mound entrance from intruders.

I had (and retain) a deep seated drive to discover and rejoice in things that, I imagined, no one would ever notice if I didn’t. In each moment, it always seemed to me, there were a thousand million things around to notice, each more fascinating than the other. Never to pass this away ever again. So, until I lost this awareness in my teens, I never ever once remember being bored.

I also recall as a child hearing Matthew 10:29 read aloud at Mass, and thinking: that is my place in the world, my place with God.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

May I be never apart from the God notices, too. The God who notices, and who loves.

For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,
for your imperishable Spirit is in all things! — Wisdom 11:24-12:1

Yesterday I was out at the beach with my family, and I waded out a few hundred yards into the shallow Gulf waters. In the silence of that vast space, I was unexpectedly overcome by prayer. More specifically, I was overwhelmed by an intense awareness that, as a priest of nature and of grace, it was my dignified office in that moment to look at creation with God’s delight and joy, and give voice to creation’s grateful delight and joy in God. Created God’s image, humanity alone on earth can offer logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Rom. 21:1) to God on behalf of every non-rational creature. We alone can say to the Father, “Thank you for calling us from non-existence into being!”

Like a crazy man I shouted into the sky, over the waters — with fish literally jumping out of the water all around me! — a line from the Catechism (#1047) that I have memorized because of its mind-blowing beauty:

The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

Surrounded by a horizon-less sea, I sensed so clearly that all is sheer gift, none of it is my possession. The universe, my body and soul, my family on the beach. All of it must be (and will be!) returned to God. But my calling is to do that in an act of absolute submission, with thanksgiving and praise, in trust, out of a non-possessive humility that acknowledges in every moment: existence is never deserved, only to be gratefully received and gratefully returned.

Only in returning all, letting go in a quite absolute way, can I receive all back. For only then is all no longer a possession, but all is gift.

I saw a dead horseshoe crab floating by me, and thought:

Death opens out into life only when it is offered Up in an act of grateful return, of non-possessive surrender to the Father from whom all blessings flow. This is what makes the death of Christ the consummate act of creation. His death on the cross is the only final and perfect return of all to the Father. And the Resurrection is the Father’s response to Christ’s priestly return. This is why the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the fulcrum for our priestly service to all creation through, with and in Him.

So please, please, never be bored! For around you is a world that did not have to be, but is. A world that awaits your noticing, your rapt attention, your lifted voice, your bodily offering in creation’s name to its Maker, singing a new song of praise and blessing, of thanksgiving and joyful worship.

Look around you! The world is ablaze in divine fire! You only need stop, be silent, and notice that you are being Noticed.

Pope Francis gets all this so well:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.

Willing to say more than we can be

As theologians, we must say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not write to justify the limits of our lives. — Stanley Hauerwas

Last Fall, I once told my students in a class I taught on prayer, “This class terrifies me, because I resemble little of it but aspire to all of it.”

This is the terrible beauty of teaching, writing and witnessing to our Faith: even as we give voice to its grand vision of life’s meaning and purpose, we find ourselves simultaneously judged before its impossibly high standards and lifted up by its exalted vision of who God wills us to be. Faith exposes us as both frauds and exemplars, as simul justus et peccator, “at once justified and a sinner.” St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations, expressed this tension wonderfully:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

One of my sons said to me recently, after we had spent over an hour talking about the heroism required to live Catholic sexual ethics in our culture, “Dad, is there anything the church teaches that you just don’t buy?” What an excellent and poignant question! It took us another hour to unpack. Though he and I have had many conversations about the reasonableness faith over the years, this was the most direct and personal question he had ever asked.

My answer was predictably a “yes and no,” with a mix of raw honesty and attempted nuance. We talked about squaring the depravity of clerical scandals with authoritative moral teaching, and then I shared my version of the Catholic “take” on the dialectics of faith and doubt, assent and dissent, as well as Catholicism’s use of philosophy as a way to submit faith’s claims to hard rational inquiry. We also talked about the role of prayer in exploring these questions. I said,

You can’t think your way into faith. Just as science demands observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses in its empirical method, so faith demands a willingness to engage in a “contemplative method” that’s open to God acting directly in the mind and opening it to His mystery.

[He asked, “Why?”] Because faith, even though it’s open to reason’s hardest questions, is in the end a gift that God must give — because faith admits you into the deepest mystery of God, which is beyond all empirical scrutiny. Augustine says, “I believe so that I may understand.” Faith as a relationship requires an act of trust in the other first. Only with trust can you be granted access to the other person’s inner mystery, and prayer is access granted.

What made the conversation both terrifying and exhilarating for me was that it was my son who asked this. I had spent the previous 21 years, with my wife and many others, trying to create an environment in which he — and our other children — could experience the color, texture, sound, smell and taste of a world informed by faith. A space where his emotions, imagination, intellect and freedom could grow into a free assent to Jesus Christ as the definitive meaning of all existence.

But now my son was, in effect, asking me: “Okay so, this world you created for me — Do you really believe it yourself? Do you ever doubt it? How do you reconcile it with the many other worlds out there?” We had taught our children that faith is to be fearless, that truth is one, and that the same God authored the mind and faith. So this conversation was exactly what I had always hoped for. And it was scary as hell, because it forced me to look through his eyes at the “I” that claims to boldly profess, “I believe in…”

I also realized in our conversation that such an honest exchange, such a vulnerable exchange, signaled another transition I had long hoped for: from father-son to brothers, from leader-led to companions on the journey of life, from guardian-guarded to friends (John 15:15). The same child who had long ago “ripped fatherhood out of me,” who taught me how to love in a way I could never known without him, had also ripped faith out of me and taught me to believe in a way I could never have known without him. His very existence — his face, his questions, his trust, his innocence, his doubts, his struggles, his sufferings — is the voice of Jesus asking me in every moment: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me?” “Who do you say that I am?”

And a little child shall lead them — Isaiah 11:6

{This final story I will share is shared with permission}

Years ago, when we lived in Brandon, Florida, a man joined the RCIA program I was in charge of at the time. He was married with three children, was baptized Catholic, but was not raised in the faith. When he explained to me why he wanted to return to his faith, he said, “My daughter is about to receive her first holy Communion, and when she asks why I don’t go to church, I really don’t know what to say.” He went on to say, “But just last week, she asked me with the most sincere expression, ‘Daddy, do you love Jesus?’ I was frozen and just left the room. I told my wife later, I need to give her what she wants from me. And so that’s why I am here. I want to have faith for her.”

Just before his first Confession, he met with me to discuss his journey of faith over the last 8 months. Among many things, he said, “The best part has been that I came in to find faith for my daughter, but now found it for myself.”

As parents — like all Christians who risk giving public witness to personal faith — we must always be willing to say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not simply live so as to justify the limits of our lives.