To be freed

While diligence and industriousness are important virtues for any kind of work, they become vices when these habits serve as means to escape oneself
through excessive work, leading him or her to crowd out all other dimensions of life. Acedia [sloth] produces boredom not in work, but in everything else but work. — Michael Naughton

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a retreat on the importance of leisure. I focused on the importance of ensuring life is always marked by an ebb and flow between work and leisure, especially in a culture that equates productivity and worth, busyness and value, and reduces leisure to recovery from and for work.

Among the many definitions of leisure I proposed, I said leisure is a disposition of inner freedom (licere = “to be freed”) that makes one capable of receiving existence as a sheer gift and not as an earned reward. Engaging in leisure of this sort is a sign you have affirmed that being (“who I am”) precedes doing (“what I do”), and have ceased trying — at least for a time — to manipulate existence into being what you wish it to be, and not receiving it for what it is.

Leisurely activities, always carried out “without a why,” as ends-in-themselves, affirm what is most essential in life — beauty, truth, goodness, love, mystery. And they affirm relationships as primary, as the true ends never to be turned into mere means. As such, leisure requires time, patient waiting, silence, wonder and abundant love.

Leisure re-grounds our sense of worth and identity in the act of creation, in having been created by God from nothing as a gift freely given — our existence being a gift unsought, undeserved, unmerited, unearned.

We were not created to achieve some other end or goal, but simply for our own fulfillment (the achievement of which entails the fulfillment of all humanity and the whole of creation). “The glory of God is the living man.” God does not need us, but at every moment we exist because God wills us to exist. Wants us to exist. Period. Nothing else justifies our reason for being other than an infinite and eternally sustained act of gratuitous love emanating from the God whose existence is “without a why.”

Love is our origin, our end, our raison d’être.

Prayer in its deepest meaning is the act of freely submitting to God’s gaze of merciful love on the seventh day of creation. In prayer, we are willingly bathed in God’s willing Word: “Very good. Very beautiful” (Gen 1:31). And only those who consent in prayer to receive this gaze, even into their darkness, can choose to look out with this same gaze on all…

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.” — Luke 23:33-34

Worship is a confession of our gifted inalienable worth as we praise, bless, adore, glorify, and give thanks to the One “who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with thy kingdom which is to come.” Not because God needs such worship from groveling sycophants, but because worship rightly disposes us to receive all He has already given, from all eternity.

The most fruitful activity of man is to receive God.

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. – Psalm 127:2

In my talk, I said,

Amazing that God had to command the Sabbath, to command us to stop working. Command leisure. Sin makes us slaves to work, to busyness, to distraction, keeps us in the bondage of Egypt where we are not free to worship.

I’ve always thought how apropos it was that, on the gates of Auschwitz, the Nazis placed these words: Arbeit macht frei, “Work sets you free.”

If you feel worthless when you are not productive, busy or working;
or if, when you rest, you feel guilty,
as if you have not sufficiently justified your reason for existing as you rest;
or if you cannot endure praise for any sign of goodness or beauty in you,
but ever demur that you are unworthy of any praise;
or if, when you are not suffering in some way,
you feel you don’t deserve good or pleasure or joy for its own sake –
you need to sit at the feet of Queen Sabbath, who, as gift of God,
was sent to remind you of the words spoken at your conception:
“I love you: I want you to be.”

 

Rain down

This is the spring of life that waters the whole world,
Taking its origin from the Wounds of Christ.
Sinner, to be purified, go down into the holy water. — Inscription on the Lateran Baptistery

During the proclamation of the Gospel during yesterday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, for whatever reason I had a flash memory that dates back to the Fall of 1987. It’s very simple, so for what it’s worth here it is.

I had experienced a life-altering encounter with Christ in February of that year, and spent the subsequent months trying to figure out what on earth had happened to me and what to do with this whole new world that had opened up to me. It was thrilling and frightening all at once. The combination of the divine wildfire that was burning in me and the loss of a girlfriend, and several other friends who thought I’d gone mad, had caused me tremendous stress.

My flash memory was of me walking across the Florida State campus one hot afternoon right after I had gotten out of class. I remember I was praying to God with great frustration, and said something like this: “God, you’ve caused this mess. You have to help me get through all this. It’s just too much too fast!” I recall so vividly that right at that very moment a heavy afternoon shower — the kind that begins with giant drops — suddenly let loose and drenched both me and my backpack. I started laughing so hard I fell to the ground and shouted aloud, without a hint of self-consciousness, “Okay, enough! I get the point!”

Anyone looking at me certainly would have thought I was in the midst of a psychotic break.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I knew there was strange grace in that rain. Along with the unbridled freedom that came with this unexpected moment of totally letting go, a deep sense of God’s playfulness filled me. I sat still on the pavement until the rain ended, still laughing, and realized in those moments I felt freer than I ever had in my whole life. It was like a second baptism, and its power, from that day forward in the weeks and months ahead, turned my stress into determination and trust.

“When the Savior is washed, all water is cleansed.” I think if I had read these words of St. Maximus of Turin as I sat there on the ground, I would have nodded and smiled.

Grace is everywhere.

In honor of this Mystery, I will leave you with a recording my daughter Maria helped me upload to YouTube. It’s from 2015. My wife and one of her choir members nicknamed “CC” were rehearsing before Mass in the stairwell of the church. I decided to quietly sneak in and record it, unbeknownst to Patti….

You’re not in control

What a weakness it is to love Jesus Christ only when He caresses us, and to be cold immediately once He afflicts us. This is not true love. Those who love thus, love themselves too much to love God with all their heart. –St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

Last week, I visited with a woman I have known for quite a number of years. She’s a person of faith and has seen her share of tragedy in life.  When I asked her how she has dealt with various hardships, she said something that took my breath away. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

There’s a point where you realize that ultimately you’re not in control, and you have two options. You can either curl up into a ball and die or you can open your hands up and live. One is a surrender to your own defeat, the other is a surrender to a victory that’s not your own. For me, that’s the real meaning of power being made perfect in weakness — giving space for God to love you where love seems lost, especially when everything in you says otherwise.

Then I added:

In this is the genesis of all love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us.
Where there is no love, call down that love, and you will draw out love.
This is the epiclesis at the heart of all prayer — hands turned upward to receive before being turned downward to consecrate.

Holy (Unchosen) Family

[This will actually begin a break as I will be away from internet for five days!]

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. — Harper Lee

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of His rescue plan for the human race.

The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or like those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work or what our religion, race or ethnicity is. Or even what parish family we happen to belong to.

George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations, that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.

Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into — relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference — that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are ‘stuck to’ that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “you shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur — one “near by” — love encounters its highest calling.

Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.

The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the Kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.

G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The word “religion,” from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a People — many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.

This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the Cross by His neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as He obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.

I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather we fiercely believe, as a rule (§518), that the parish we belong to — are “bound fast to” — is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our land-locked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-by’s with whom God’s scheming Providence ✟ has arranged for us to learn love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.

May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-by’s, beginning with those nearest us at home.

The Truth will drop your facade

The truth has not so much set us free as it has ripped away a carefully constructed facade, leaving us naked to begin again.
― Lisa Unger

This time of year, amid the festive lights and joyful songs and celebrations, some of the darkest parts of ourselves, and especially of our families, can surface and sully what should be a merry season. Estrangements become vivid, loneliness cuts deep, loss opens its dark doors; the feeling of being forgotten, left behind or overwhelmed suffocates. Or maybe we are consumed by that deep nagging sense of being a failure as Christmas letters pour in, detailing what seem to be wonderful and successful lives.

Yuck!

But isn’t this the point of the season? Aren’t we “the people who dwell in darkness” who see a great light? Yes! The Savior, not the Cheerleader reigns. To do what? To save a wretch like we! Which is why we jubilantly sing on Christmas,

He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found…

He comes to speak blessings into our curse-drenched world, to enter our darkness with His great light, to descend into the realm of death with His life, to bound into a land of gloom carrying His hope, to walk into our lonely lives with His loving Presence.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn, as Christ comes — the Rising Sun — to draw out our darkness from its hidden place, and conquer.

The source of Christmas cheer is not that all is well and God’s arrival is the icing on the cake. No! All is not well, and God has come to His people to set them free. We are imprisoned, all of us. That’s the point.

The key? To use Advent as a season to stop and drop the facades. Then let the River of Life roll over us. Give Christ leave to descend into your sundry hells, and ask Him — no, beg Him! — to dawn in you the light of hope. Stop trying to kill your pain, and leave room for His love to reign … in the silence.

Only then you will be ready to spread good cheer.

We once got a Christmas letter from a family who detailed all of the unpleasant dysfunctions and failures, along with the successes, of their year. Though it was done in a spirit of good humor, it was absolutely refreshing. Yes, there was a real family, a family ready for the birth of the naked, crying, hungry Truth who sets us free. To be real, and joyous.

If we so choose.

So get real before the Real, and then have a Merry Christmas.

O Advent Acts of Charity

You excuse yourself saying, “I cannot perform acts of charity because I have no money.” Why do you think you need money to practice charity? What about the charity of a smile and a warm handshake, the charity of human compassion and understanding, the charity of a visit or a remembrance in your prayers? ― Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

This season is the season of alms — of charitable words, of going through your closet and giving away all that is not necessary, of wasting extra time with loved ones, of patiently waiting in traffic, of giving thanks that someone’s ineptitude gave you the chance to be better, of lingering somewhere five minutes more than you planned to pray for the hardest person in your life, of doing secret acts of kindness, of choosing to listen carefully to a difficult person, of holding your tongue when you shouldn’t speak or risking discomfort when you should.

Come up with your own “of.”

Alms are always in season, but especially in this Season.

Never Meaningless

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ — Martin Luther King

Though I often forget this vision, it’s what I aspire to. As my wife often says, “don’t ever phone it in.”

Someone asked me the other day how his seemingly meaningless clerical job can help him become holy. I said something like this,

Your faith in a God who became human, who brings to every human action an infinite meaning. So first of all, exorcise the word ‘meaningless’ from your vocabulary. If you can demonstrate to the world around you that, in Christ, every tedious action co-creates a new heaven and new earth, you’ll perform the same exorcism on your eyewitnesses.

How do you do that? “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” [Matt. 5:16]. In your dedication to excellence in every detail. In hard work. In humility. In patience. In facing hardship with trust in God’s providence. In a witness of joy. In a noble tongue.

And if anyone asks you ‘why’ for your odd sense of hope seemingly disconnected from expected motives, be ready to say the ‘J’ word.

Saint Thérèse makes this amazing point, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” I tell my kids, Blessed be bored and boring. Because if you can make good of boring times, which privilege will over emotion, you can make good of anything.

From another vantage, my grandfather wrote me in a letter,

It’s not the kind of work you do that matters most, or the results of that work, but the kind of man you become in the working. No matter what the work, no matter your pleasure (or not) in what you do, you have the chance to be great by doing the great in every task, every delay, every success, every failure. But true greatness comes only in those moments when no one sees or cares but God.