A light post today, littered with pix which, for me, serve as a Pyx for the sacraments of daily life.
First, the sounds from Sunday’s quiet moment along the lakeshore:
A light post today, littered with pix which, for me, serve as a Pyx for the sacraments of daily life.
First, the sounds from Sunday’s quiet moment along the lakeshore:
A bit of an unhinged post today. It free-flowed and then just ended. You’ll see…
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I was reading Annie Dillard, and when I got to this line I had to stop, drop and pray:
“You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
And then I had to write…
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4th century Greek Father of the Church extraordinaire, St. Gregory of Nyssa, offers a striking description of the experience of contemplating the beginning-less, endless infinity of God. Gregory always gives me a stiff springboard for leaping into my own contemplative ventures. Here’s one that takes Annie’s challenge to depths:
Imagine a sheer, steep crag of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity. On top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. From here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; it does not allow our minds to approach. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.
Gregory invites us here to join him in undergoing some serious mystic “cognitive dissonance” by engaging the imagination in a wilderness journey to the edge of the God-mystery. Limitless, horizon-less. But he’s not simply advocating a mental game for expanding the mind’s speculative reach into extreme metaphysical thinking. Rather, for this thoroughly Christian theologian, this exercise of cliff-jumping is an invitation to enter prayer, a summons to enter into an intimate colloquy with the infinitely communing (tri)personal God. To enter Their dance without origin or terminus.
For St. Gregory, the preparatory exercise of dizzying the imagination, bewildering our hardened expectations, is eminently useful in service to heart-stretching prayer. Mother Teresa gets this:
Prayer makes your heart bigger, until it is capable of containing the gift of God himself.
And this precisely because accompanying praying-Israel out of Egypt’s chains through the splitting-sea, out into the wild deserts and mountains of Sinai where the Most High roams, helps free the soul from the death-grip of its thousand delimiting graven idols. There, freed from the mythic gods of Egypt (liberated for an exodus into mystery) God can at last be God — God with us, in us, for us and beyond us. You see, the God of Israel, the God of Golgotha, is an unchained, free, wild, untamed and limitless Other-Other-Other, whose glory is circumscribed only by the beauty of His own self-originating nature, e.g. by His goodness, justice, truth, faithfulness, ad infinitum. He cannot be otherwise than these. Deo gratias.
In sum, God’s infinity is bound only by the stricture of His absolute love.
God’s all-transcending eternity is hemmed in by love, and not just by a sheer cold act of self-subsisting Be-ing. Actus Purus.
No! So much more!
In Him burn marvelous paradoxes, roiling deep in the heart of His flesh-taking Incarnation: Jesus.
The living God, the Terror of Isaac (Gen. 31:42), when He finally chooses to fully reveal Himself to creation by wrapping Himself in creation, appears not as an opaque, distant and edge-less abstraction. Such a god would then only be accessible (and interesting) to the analytic scrutiny of those elite academic adepts gifted with a singularly expansive and speculative prowess.
Blah! How dull.
Rather, the living and loving God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin, shines His glory as Creator-made-creature, Infinity-made-itty. God’s unimaginable immensity is revealed for all flesh (especially for “little children” cf Matt. 11:25) to behold in a most shockingly concrete, raw, real and homely manner: an infant who hungers for food, a dying man who thirsts for drink. And the greatest expansiveness of this self-wasting Lover of mankind is this: He who needs nothing “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired” (St. Maximus the Confessor). The Cross reveals the unsearchable tangles of love, the binding of God. Pope Benedict, help me:
God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.
…just gaze for a few silent moments on this utter folly! At this outrageously, absurdly over-sized creation! At that absurdly excessive execution! Realize, we “killed the Author of life” (Acts 3:15).
“Who has believed what we have heard?” (Is. 53:1).
Ecce, “Behold!” Behold what? In a Word, the unconstrained essence of our God is finally seen, face-to-face, wholly exposed, pierced and naked. “He who sees me sees the Father” (John 12:45). Brutally transfixed to a Tree by all-constraining nails, rendering Omnipotence powerless. Madness! How can this be?
Very simply, His Majesty is, à la St. Catherine of Siena, pazzo d’amore, ebro d’amore, “crazed with love, drunk with love.”
It seems to me only Tchaikovsky can save us here at the precipice of mystery, bearing us up on the hymns of the Cherubim:
The Cross and Cosmos, Liber scripturae, liber naturae, the two most sacred texts providing substance for our prayer lives as Christians. Contemplate today their intertwining dance, whilst risking free-falling into prayer.
But remember with Whom you dance:
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The Cross is steady while the world whirls ’round”
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev. 1:17-18).
…et ecce, sacramentum divinam immensitatem:
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
Last weekend I happened on a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence by Passenger. Dang. It’s such a brilliant song, both for its lyrics and its melody, and Passanger draws out from it such depth of feeling. It was part of my childhood, and so whenever I hear it now I think of my brother’s scratchy vinyl album playing in the living room as I tinkered with my Lincoln Logs.
Though I am not entirely certain what the song’s lyrics meant to Paul Simon, they have meant different things to me at different points in my life. I’d like to share very briefly here one meaning they took on for me while I was serving at Mother Teresa’s homeless shelter and hospice in D.C., Gift of Peace, back in the early 1990’s. I’ve shared this story here before, but when I heard Michael Rosenberg sing I thought of this experience in a whole new way. I’ll paste it again here and add a few flourishes:
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I was assigned to care for a man, we’ll call him Richard, when I started volunteering at Gift of Peace. Richard was in his 40’s, was originally from Tallahassee, Florida and had had a stroke while he lived on the streets. Actually, he had a stroke in midwinter, while he was sleeping in an abandoned car under a bridge suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. He was found and survived, but lost some of his fingers and toes, as well as his ability to move freely or speak intelligibly. A life full of tragedy, it seemed.
The sister who paired me with Richard said that, in addition to the bodily care he needed, more than anything else he required my companionship. My time. He needed me to sit with him, mostly without any practical purpose, and learn his language, talk about Tallahassee (where I had previously lived), sing songs, talk sports or just wheel him around. He had come from a world where no one listened, where few, if any, cared. I wrote in my journal one night, “Sr. Manorama wants me to break Heaven’s silence, be a word of God for him. That’s deep. Hope I can fill such a tall order.”
I would imagine him living out in the streets, surrounded by countless people, yet utterly alone. Those silent nights of dreamless sleep. There are so many like him in D.C., in every city and town, in homes, offices, marriages. Lazarus again passed by, unnoticed, neglected. No time or place is immune from the disease of apathy, the curse of neglect or ‘harmless’ benevolence. Studdard Kennedy writes of this in the Birmingham, England of the early 1900’s:
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds–and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—
the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.
And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.
When my time at Gift of Peace was complete and I was ready to leave — for good — I had to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I planned to soft pitch it to him with an “I’ll be back to visit” white lie. But Sister would have no part of that. I had to tell him I would not return or he would think I was like everyone else. A liar, abandoning him.
So I told him. He would not look at me. He was hurt. Mad. Disappointed. I finally convinced him to look at me. In the eyes. Then I said very spontaneously, “I love you, Richard.”
It was a detonation.
He exploded into wailing and sobbing, heaving gasps. I was horrified. What had I done? Was my love a dagger? I tried to console him, but he would not be consoled. A Sister came over and told me it was okay to leave. She would take care of him. I walked away, down the hall to say goodbye to Sister Manorama. I told her, “That’s exactly why I didn’t want to say that was it, last time. Never again. Terrible.” She asked me what happened. I told her. She said, “Don’t you see how important that was? You told him you loved him. Who do you think has said that to him in his life? See, better than words, first you showed him your love was true these last months. That’s why those three words had such power. Got into his soul. Now he knows he’s loved by a man who knew him well. A brother. No one can take that from him. Go in peace.”
I still was haunted by those wailing sounds. Go in peace? A small comfort. Yet I saw, differently, all my life as an opportunity to break God’s silence, to fill deadly silence with love so that silence is no longer barren absence, but pregnant presence. Full of human and divine love. This is why each of us exist: to be a divine word, a divine thought spoken into the deep wells of silence. Transubstantiating absence with Presence, non-being with Being, darkness with Light, the wailing dirge with a New Song.
“But this song only really works if everyone’s super super quiet.” Only thus are we able to listen to the Word.
O God, split the night, that we might know we are not alone. Only then will others come to know, through us, they are not alone.
For you are with us, in the silence.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls (can’t you see that we’re lost)
[This post has been sitting in my drafts for years. Ite, missa est...]
The Eucharist, the sacrament involving the poignant necessity of sitting down at a table to eat every day, involves the taking into our mortal bodies the transfigured and immortal body of Jesus as Christ, and a being reminded of and comforted by a most physical and literal sense of his companionship.
To these and other sacraments I would like to add the sacrament of words. I would like to talk about my experience of Jesus’s words in the same way I have spoken about the ingestion of his body. I believe that when we take these words in with full attention, ingest them with our eyes and ears, we are taking in not the body but the mind of Christ and the creative will of God, as Christ is called the Word through which the universe was uttered into being; we are taking in the very thinking of Christ, its meaning and presence which never goes away though we may choose to turn away from it; and we are taking in the ultimate mystery—that Christ came not to abolish suffering (clearly!) but to take part in it. — Franz Wright
I will share today a very personal grace. I usually avoid doing that because one’s experience of God is so unique, and trying to compare oneself to another can be dangerous. I share it only because I believe it contains some universal themes that are not simply about me, but about being human before God. I very rarely have unusual experiences like this, though when I do they usually are harbingers of a great trial approaching. And so it was in this case. And when unique graces are given to me, they are always given to me for others. And that’s the simplest definition of God: for others. Father for Son, Son for Father, Spirit of Father and Son.
Back in 2011, I was praying in St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, before the icon above. I had been walking around the Cathedral that morning as a spectator, admiring the art and architecture, when I happened on this 5′ tall icon of Christ the Teacher. Somehow, in a way I can’t explain, it gripped me, seized me, drew me in. So I stopped and began to pray. Here’s what I wrote later that night in my journal:
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Those eyes. I could not stop looking at those eyes. How can I explain it? Soft, severe. Inviting, penetrating my inscape. As I looked, I fell into prayer. I got lost in those eyes. I really can find no better way to say it.
Then the center of my focus shifted. I ceased to look at His eyes and they began to look at me. No, into me. It was as if He were searching in me for something. Exploring my soul. Yet it was neither intrusive nor frightening. And for whatever reason, the words of a prayer by Pope Pius XII kept playing in my mind over and over: “Lord, make me your other self.”
And so it was.
He was thinking of me, in me, with me. Not as an outsider, but as an insider. Like St. Augustine’s, Interior intimo meo, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” Utterly astonishing.
And what did He think? Mostly I could not say. Inchoate things, to me more like intuition than concepts. But near the end of the time — nearly 35 minutes — there were some distinctive thoughts that pressed with lasting force.
A flood of memories from childhood came. Voices belittling me for my ignorance, my learning deficits. Though somehow they came without pain. Just remembering, painless tears. And the voice, the thoughts, the words that arose in the eyes of Christ: “I know all things.” I knew with absolute certitude in that moment, He did. “In my gaze, is there shame?” I answered, “No, no shame.” Tears. Silence. Awe. “Then never should you feel shame in what you do not know or who you are not. Knowledge is for love, it is not a weapon.”
Apodictic truth in that moment.
All was silent. The Cathedral around me reappeared.
More tortuous than all else is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?
I, the Lord, alone probe the mind
and test the heart — Jer. 17:9-10
Knowledge is for love. Not a weapon. No distress in those memories, no wincing as there usually is. As if God had somehow entered them. As it happened: On the Cross, transgressing time and space in those minutes, Jesus remembered my dark memories as His own. As my memories came, they were His. John Paul II: “If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened his suffering to humanity [as] a sharer in all human sufferings.”
In remembering, knowing and loving with Him, I knew I was being remembered, being known, being loved (Gal. 4:9). There in those moments, love and knowledge fused. And let me say, to recall loveless memories with someone who loves you reinvests them with an entirely different meaning. With hope.
A mission to never use knowledge to tear others down, inflate myself. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Amor ipse notitia est, “Love is itself a kind of knowledge.”
Or Aquinas: Maius est illuminare quam lucere solum, “It is greater to illuminate than merely to shine.”
My grandfather’s letter: “A smart man leaves others thinking the smart man is smart. But a wise man leaves others believing they are themselves wiser for having spoken with him.” Yes!
Love displaces the center of gravity away from self to the other.
Jesus’ omniscience left me enlightened, encouraged, confident, built up. I said to Him not, “How brilliant you are, Lord, and how stupid am I!” Rather, “How full of light I am! How beautiful is your knowledge, Lord!” God, so humble, self-emptying, loving to give all away; joying when His recipients do the same! Hot potato: no one keeps the gift long. Bonum est diffusivum sui, “Goodness is self-diffusive.”
No miraculous healing in this experience, if healing means freedom from struggle and pain. The cross-etched memories all remain. But I am newly aware my struggle is His, He is my Emmanuel, my God-with.
Faith in love gives hope.
“Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering” (Ratzinger).
“Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Cor. 12:8-9).
That power is love, and love alone makes weakness not a deficit but a capacity. A capacity for God the Most Low.
High above all nations is the Lord,
above the heavens his glory.
Who is like the Lord, our God,
who has risen on high to his throne
yet stoops from the heights to look down,
to look down upon heaven and earth?
From the dust he lifts up the lowly,
from the dungheap he raises the poor (Psalm 113:4-7).
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This rendition of the Woman at the Well captures my insight beautifully:
[I wrote this back in 2013 and never posted it because it felt unfinished. Well, too bad. Here it goes….]
Nothing will shake a man-or at any rate a man like me-out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only great hardship will bring out the truth. Only under hardship does he discover it himself. ― C.S. Lewis
After I gave a talk on discerning one’s personal vocation the other day at a local high school, I was speaking to a young man I’ll call “John” about his personal journey of faith. He shared with me a really stirring story and so I asked him, of course, if I could share it with others for teaching purposes. He kindly agreed.
He loves to act in plays, is a sax player in a jazz band and wants to be a playwright one day. He was telling me he had tried out for a particular play last year that he was very excited about, but did not get the part he had really wanted. He said,
When I found out who got it, I was totally depressed and felt that the guy who got it just was not the best pick for that part. I knew I could do it SO much better. Yeah, it may have been true, but I knew it was pride talking. I was mad and took it personally.
I had prayed to God to help me get this part before the final selections were announced, but after’s a different story. I was so upset I just quit praying for a while. I was like, God if you’re gonna dis me I’m gonna dis you. One day, a girl friend of mine sent a text to me saying she was really sorry I didn’t get the part, that I deserved it more than so-and-so, and then totally trash-talked him. That made me feel bad for this dude and I just lost it. Ashamed of myself. I saw that my attitude was shallow. It wasn’t fair to him. He worked hard, he got it. Fair and square.
And then I prayed. I said something like, “God, whatever, ok, so look, I want what you want. If he’s the best man for this, so be it.” God and I were cool. It was a total God-thing. I was feeling 100% at peace. I’d just let go of it all and felt so much better. And then you know what happened? Freaking craziest thing ever. It almost spooked me. Like 20 minutes after I let go of it all, and God and I were good, I got a text from the play director saying: “John, because [the other guy] can’t make all the practices now, you get the part. Congratulations.” I was like FREAKING losing it! Are you kidding? I was so happy, major endorphin rush. But I knew right away: God, man, you made me wait till I could accept what-was-what before you’d give me what I wanted.
That’s how I saw it, at least. God is so cool. Yeah, it’s really a small thing in the scheme of things, but it was big to me.
Unheard of maturity for a 17 year old. He held in his hand one of the golden keys for discovering God’s will, the sine qua non of discernment. As I noted in my journal at the end of this story:
If you can’t see God’s will in the present moment, right where you’re standing, and embrace it then and there, you’ll never discover it for the future. You can’t receive it.
This is why in the Our Father, which is the model for all prayer, the first three petitions, all in the present tense, require an unconditional embrace of God’s will: “Thy Name be hallowed, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Only after saying “we accept” are we ready to ask-seek-knock for more in the last four petitions: “Give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.” Before I can receive tomorrow’s sacrament of divine Providence, I must first worthily receive the sacrament of the (real) Present Moment.
Many years ago when I was struggling to manage the grave responsibilities of my full-time graduate studies, full-time employment and full-time family, I fell into a rut and became obsessed with looking for an escape-hatch. I started quietly searching for other job opportunities and began to think about what kinds of jobs I could get if I quit school. In this fantasy, everything seemed so much better! I went to my spiritual advisor and shared with him my alternative plans, certain he’d see my impeccable logic. He listened patiently, and when I was done explaining my plans he said:
Tom, you already discerned this path you are on. Carefully. Your wife discerned it with you. There’s no more discernment. This is a temptation. We can discuss how to make the specifics more livable, get more support, trim out fat in your schedule, but bolting is not the answer. You’ve set your hands to the plow. No turning back. Once you know the path, your prayer is not: God, grant what I ask! Your prayer is: God, grant what you ask. Give me all I need to be faithful.
I wrote in my journal that night:
Damn! I hate when people pop my fantasy bubble. When he said that to me, it was like shingles fell off my eyes and I saw the temptation. Fear of the cross. Fear of commitment. Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of reality. Funny, counter-intuitive, but after he popped the bubble, instead of deflation I felt a rush of grace fill my soul to strengthen my commitment. Like Quikrete was poured in my soul and immediatly created a solid core. The grace I received did not say: “I freed your shoulders from the burden,” but “I strengthened your shoulders for the burden.” Whoa.
When it’s tough in the “now,” when Today offers me a bitter sacramental Host, my character’s mettle is really tested and laid bare. And it ain’t pretty! Thank you, Lord, for loving my mess and building my temple out of scraps and rubble.
Three years later, when I faced a final temptation to abandon the journey, God would re-infuse that same grace when my wife seized hold of my tie, looked me in the eyes and said: “You were made for this. Be a man.”
Grace in my face.
My grandfather wrote to me in a letter back in late 1987 after he’d heard I’d broken up with the girl I thought I would marry. Here’s a few snippets:
You have to be able to find peace within you and not rely on circumstances. Even in a war zone, your soul should be a sanctuary. If you can’t find peace here, now, inside, you’ll never find it anywhere. If you ain’t happy now, you ain’t never gonna be happy then …“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.” … But you must choose this. God has made you Captain of your own destiny … “If only” is a declaration of defeat. If you don’t see opportunity where you are, in every moment, no matter what’s going on, you won’t ever see it … You only get to keep what you’re ready to give up. You can’t give what you don’t have and you can’t have what you aren’t ready to let go of. The tighter you squeeze water in your hands, the faster it drains away. You see, it’s all free, Tommy, and it’s all meant to stay free. You got to take it like it is … This is a secret to living from this old poetaster, gained from his almost 80 years of life. It’s up to you to take it or leave it.
[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]
A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon
In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…
Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.
St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,
Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.
Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.
What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.
Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.
God says to Isaiah:
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).
Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.
This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.
The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).
What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.
I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:
There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.
He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.
The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:
Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.
Single-parent families often result from the unwillingness of biological mothers or fathers to be part of a family; situations of violence, where one parent is forced to flee with the children; the death of one of the parents; the abandonment of the family by one parent, and other situations. Whatever the cause, single parents must receive encouragement and support from other families in the Christian community, and from the parish’s pastoral outreach. — Pope Francis
A few weeks ago, I was blessed to hear the faith witness of a woman named Sharon Heno. She’s a remarkable woman. After hearing her speak, I asked, as is my habit, if she would allow me to share her story on my Blog. She immediately replied, “Absolutely.” As her witness was so vivid, gritty and powerful, and I didn’t want to risk misrepresenting her, I asked if she wouldn’t mind writing it out herself. She obliged. I am so grateful. Below is a personal introduction, her story of faith, hope and love, and the song she feels best captures her life’s meaning.
Who I am:
My name is Sharon A. Heno, I am by profession a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of the Counseling group, Behavioral Health Counseling and Consulting. Personally, I am a Mother and Survivor. I grew up Catholic and attended Catholic schools for my education. My elementary school was St. Clement of Rome then middle and high school Ursuline Academy. After a break in my academic journey I attended the University of Life. In all of this I survived violence, a stroke, among other health issues, financial troubles, being lost, and now single parenthood. I have survived many challenges in my life, but believe I have come out of each challenge with more awareness and insight into my life and my purpose. Eventually I returned to college and graduated from Loyola University. I went on to receive my Masters from the University of New Orleans and pursued my career in Counseling. Even now life is not free from challenges, I am ever changing and evolving to God’s calling. I openly share my story as I believe I am called to share my life’s ups and downs to encourage others facing obstacles.
I don’t believe that being a single parent is a calling from God. Becoming a single parent is a result of our free will. From the start, with Adam and Eve, we know the story of free will. God often uses our choices to teach us lessons. What an amazing God to use this love to teach us lessons of life and love. As a young adult, I frequently pushed limits, tested my independence and had little time for God or the church in my busy life.
With this I often found my life in turmoil and crisis. I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.
In early 2001 found myself back in crisis and my life reeling out of control. Discovering I was pregnant came as though I were diagnosed with a fatal illness. I was unable to receive the news as a gift, but rather as a curse. I went into damage control. I remember the feeling, fear and darkness took over, what was I going to do and how was I going to get out of this? My next steps were to reach out to the only other person who could understand, the only one who might have solutions. I contacted her biological father looking for support and comfort, I was met with something else. His fear was greater than my own and he too went into damage control. Our solution at this point was not to go further with this pregnancy. Looking back with no other intention but to cover up the shame we were feeling. He jumped into gear and took care of everything, setting the appointment, offering to pay and driving to the procedure.
Yes, he was in control and taking charge, this is what I thought I needed. And it was. Only at this moment I gave control to the wrong person, still believing we could change things and be in control of this situation. We had gotten in this, we could certainly take control to “fix” it. While at the clinic, I heard that inner voice louder than ever before. I couldn’t do this, I wouldn’t do this. I had heard that voice before, but often reasoned it away. Not today, I suddenly felt peace not in knowing what I would do, but in not going through with the abortion. I left that day alone, without human support, but at that moment decided I would begin my journey in obedience, letting go. I left alone from earthly supports, but with 100% support from what I know today was my Heavenly Father. The shame I felt lifted and I was no longer in damage control, but rather asking the Father to show me what he wanted me to do.
I was still considering putting my daughter up for adoption, and some even offered to buy her. As I prayed about these, none of these options were met with feelings of peace for me. I have nothing but respect and admiration for those that put their babies up for adoption and for the families that adopt them. At this point in my life, I did not feel this is what I was being called to do. This was confirmed when her biological father refused to sign adoption papers which prohibited me from placing her for adoption. It appeared to many I was losing control and being abandoned, but rather I was letting go.
I felt the most peace when I proclaimed that at 31 years old, I would keep and raise my baby. Not sure how, but at that moment it was almost as if I were reborn. I had to let go of the demons of my past and embrace my future. Was I scared? Yes! I did not want to be a statistic, nor create one. How would I provide for her? How would I even survive the pregnancy alone? I felt alone, but would later come to see I was not. Looking back, God was there all the time, making what seemed impossible, possible. A friend of mine shared a biblical passage: “Go by faith not by sight.” This became my mantra and remains so today.
With the delivery of my daughter many miracles and blessings began to come, and only hours after her birth healing came to my family. We had not spoken the duration of my pregnancy, but they arrived and healing began. We began to heal as a family and individually. So much has been a blessing, but the lessons and challenges are there. There are daily struggles and fears that I face every day. Facing the trials and tribulations alone, carrying the support on my own. Trying to console me for not having the companionship of a husband, many often say, “Well you don’t have a husband but you have your daughter.” I agree, but I don’t believe you should rely on your child to process your fears and struggles. She is a child, and the challenges that I as a parent face should not and will not be shared with her. Children need to be allowed to be children.
Another challenge I face is with friendships. Friends are hard enough to make, but as a single parent, unfortunately, I have found you are almost ousted, excluded, which can intensify those feelings of loneliness. One thing I have learned is people or things cannot take away that feeling. I truly feel peaceful when I spend time every day in prayer. This is a challenge, as like so many I am always short on time. I have become more disciplined in giving my time to God and this brings me a peace I cannot explain. When I’m feeling, lonely I turn to my Father. He has said he can be all things. When my earthly parents can’t comfort me the way I need, it is God that offers support. When friends are scarce, God is a constant. As for finding a loved one, well, I do believe God has already selected him but right now God needs me to continue to grow and to stay focused on my daughter.
Some of the lessons I have learned and continue to learn are patience, living in the moment and most importantly nothing is possible without God, but everything is possible through him. He has entrusted me with the joy and responsibility of raising this beautiful creation of his.