Disability is not the last word on life

[still a busy week that will be tough for writing, but I felt moved to share this video]

How eloquent are your words for us today, Lord of life and hope! Every human limitation is ransomed and redeemed in you. Thanks to you, disability is not the last word on life. Love is the last word; it is your love that gives meaning to life. Help us to turn our hearts to you; help us to recognize your face shining in every human creature, however tried by toil, hardship and suffering. Make us understand that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” — St. John Paul II

“Still, at a cultural level there are still expressions that offend the dignity of the person and that maintain a false concept of life. An often narcissistic and utilitarian view, unfortunately, increasingly leads to the consideration of people with disabilities as marginal, without seeing in them the multifaceted human and spiritual wealth that they possess. There is still a strong attitude of rejection of this condition in the collective mentality, as though it prevented the individual from being happy and self-fulfilled. Proof of this is the eugenic tendency to eliminate the unborn child that shows some form of imperfection. In fact, we all know many people who, even in their fragility and with great effort, have found the way to live a good life and richly meaningful life.” — Pope Francis

Un-mute this video it as it begins:

“Well done,” laity at Calvary

{I will likely pause for posting for a few days — hopefully resuming next weekend.}

[Here is a sprawling journal entry I wrote late one night last weekend]

The path of the lay faithful [since Vatican II] has not been without its difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

This last week a friend of mine, who had gone to the “New York Encounter” (an annual three-day public cultural event in the heart of New York City, offering opportunities for education, dialogue, and friendship inspired by the work of Father Luigi Giussani), shared with me a video of an interview at the event with Dr. Michael J. Brescia, co-founder and executive medical director of Calvary Hospital in New York City.

Wow.

I used it in class last week at the seminary. We were discussing the ways in which the laity exercise their baptismal sharing in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly offices by carrying out their core mission of consecrating the world to God in a secular key. We discussed the above quote from St. John Paul II, focusing on some of the odder effects of modernity’s sharp separation of faith and life. While for many people of nominal faith it means assimilation, subordinating faith to dominant cultural values, for devout Christians the “split” becomes a deep ambivalence, or even antipathy, toward robust engagement in the temporal/worldly/secular dimensions of life. The latter is, to me, the saddest, as it is devout men and women who should be running into the midst of the world to season it with salty faith.

A young man who came to speak with me last year told me that the spirituality he had been formed in while serving in a popular campus ministry movement had made him lose his lifelong passion to be [an architect], because “it suddenly seemed so worldly and not compatible with a serious prayer life and being radical in my faith. Not being in church work just feels like I’m settling for sub-par holiness.” Two hours later, I finally stopped talking.

Vatican II captured succinctly this grave problem,

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. They are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.

The late Francis Cardinal George also made this point, when he said in a lecture on Vatican II, “We have allowed a missionary Council to be domesticated. The greatest failure of the post-Vatican II Church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially, on faith’s terms.”

One of the seminarians said he thought the laity should not be pressed to imagine “the holy” as narrowly confined to explicitly churchy-religious activities. Rather, as their vocational center of gravity is “in each and in all of the secular professions and activities; in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven” (Lumen Gentium), they should feel spiritually at home seeking God amid the world’s joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. He added that he would want to encourage lay men and women who feel fired up with faith to simply keep “doing what they’re doing” in the world, but in a manner imbued by the Gospel of Jesus, shaped by faith, hope and love.

The lay Holy of Holies, their inner sanctum, is located in the trenches along the front lines of the Church Militant (CCC#899), embedded deep in the midst of the world, in marriage and family, culture and politics, finance and education, art and science, law and business, military and agriculture, etc. Yes, it’s risky business for those tasked by God with planting His Kingdom outposts in the midst of a fallen world ravaged by sin and death. Yup, it’s hard as hell to live on earth as it is in heaven.

Striving to live so as to hear God say to them on the Last Day, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23), the priestly laity labor to bring all things, from quark to cosmos, person to planet, under the sway of God’s Kingdom. This is what it means to consecrate the world to God, to bring every aspect of our existence into harmony with Him, from moment to moment. To bring all under the royal influence of divine love is to quarry materials for a new creation, turning stones into bread, water into wine and mammon into mercy, offering all of these up — along with our very bodies (Rom. 12:1) — as a living sacrifice to God Most High.

I mean, it’s absolutely mind-blowing to realize that the water, stones, quasars, along with all life on earth (Is. 11:6-11) or anywhere else — offered by us in the Mass — will pass over into the new creation by way of the human Heart of God, Jesus Christ, and by the holy lives of “the just” who are joined to Jesus as His Body. As the Catechism #1047, 50 says,

Having completed the work God called them to do in this world, [the just] will find rest. Moreover, their works will accompany them, and they will find once more, in the land of the living, all the good fruits of their nature and effort—but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed.

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.

I have read that hundreds of times, and I never cease to be overwhelmed by its immensity. My puny life, lived in the labors of love, drenches creation in the Fountain of Immortality. In the next world, I hope, I can see all that came in with me. 💥

If the lay faithful fail to consecrate the world in this way, fail to enter the heart of the world to consecrate, and be thoroughly secular in God’s way, the secular world will be thoroughly desecrated, lost to eternity. God has made Christians the “soul of the world,” and so we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the world turns soulless and damnable. To curse that dark world is to curse ourselves.

Put another way — the Church exists to make relics of matter, feasts of time, sanctuaries of space, temples of bodies, sacrifices of praise, a Kingdom of cities, earth into heaven and heaven into earth, drenching all things in the Speech of God roaring from the the Cross (Amos 1:2; Mark 15:37; 1 Cor. 1:18). Yes, the Church exists to make saints, saints who return to God all that God once placed under their dominion, exercised thus:

Fr. Mychal Judge, carried by those he died serving on the front lines, 9/11/2001

So, I had my class watch about 4 minutes of this interview with Dr. Brescia as he described to an audience of medical professionals how to approach working with patients. In it, he specifically refers to Calvary’s hospital policy regarding the non-use of restraints on patients, and shares a profound story about a man who had been in a Nazi concentration camp and bore on his arm the tattooed numbers given to all camp inmates. After watching the video, I asked the class to tell me how Brescia, in his secular genius as a medical professional, exercised his priestly, prophetic and kingly offices. Their responses were remarkable.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen would certainly agree, Calvary Hospital is well named:

The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap … He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the world and make Christ known.

Here is the video (up to 41:40). I want to kiss his feet…

The Sacrament of Music

[re-post from 2015]

 There is a mysterious and deep kinship between music and hope, between song and eternal life: not for nothing does the Christian tradition portray the Blessed in the act of singing in a choir, in ecstasy and enraptured by the beauty of God. — Benedict XVI

Back in the late 1980’s, I was on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The retreat director, Fr. Basil Pennington, asked me a fascinating question when I met with him for Confession. He said, “If heaven’s filled with music, which we know it is, what piece of music on earth would you want to be playing when you first entered into Paradise and saw the face of God? What I’m really asking is, what song evokes God’s presence most clearly for you in this life?”

I told him I couldn’t answer on the spot, too deep a question for a casual response. He asked me to think about it, and when I figured it out to send him a letter letting him know. Time passed, and one day I heard on the radio the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata — which I’ve long loved. As I listened to it, Fr. Basil’s question came to mind and I was overwhelmed with deep feelings. I knew in that instant, without any doubt, that was it. 

Once, I shared that story with my wife, Patti, when she and I were talking about the spiritual power of music. Unbeknownst to me, she proceeded to practice and memorize the Sonata score, and then played it for me on my birthday thirteen years ago. “…we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this.”

What’s your song?

Here’s the Sonata:

Your Father who sees in secret

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world. — Hans Urs von Balthasar

Yesterday, we read from Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, which contains Jesus’ take on how Jews should carry out their religion’s Big Three: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The key insight He adds to this very traditional Jewish triad is to do them primarily for love of God-neighbor and not for love of self. To accomplish this re-orienting of the ego, Jesus offers a very simple strategy: do all three in secret. Why? Well, when you do good in secret, very quietly and anonymously, it purifies your intention by taking the focus off of yourself and focusing on the God you glorify and the one your benefit (which is saying the same thing). And if there’s anything that’s core about the New Testament, it’s “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

Secret deeds also take away the control you exercise over the immediate “cash value” of good deeds, your ability to milk attention, praise, gratitude out of others. In secret, you give “what’s in it for me?” over into the Hands of God’s re-distributing providence, so He can reward your deeds as He sees fit. In other words, they cultivate the spirit of detachment. This, I would venture, is the meaning of Jesus’ refrain, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

What reward? Well, note that later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks to the rich young man of the reward which is stored up for him as “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21), the “treasury deposit” reward is the direct result of the man’s willingness to surrender his (earned) earthly treasures to the poor. In giving, receiving. In Christianity, reward is inscribed with the logic of love, which makes my reward anything that benefits my neighbors — their good is my good.

And my guess — the way God acts in salvation history — is that He will use our choicest rewards to benefit those we dislike the most, or who dislike us the most (Matt. 5:43-48). Certainly this is how the Father rewarded His Son’s obedient love — by redeeming His enemies (Rom. 5:10). But the real trick is to live like that divine economy is true now. Because it is.

Heaven should be very interesting.

While this strategy of secrecy in good deeds is not always possible, or even desirable (see Matt. 5:16!), it is a solid ascetical (spiritual discipline) practice that should consistently thread through all of our do-gooding. During Lent, it might be good to choose an area where you are especially (overly) sensitive to needing/seeking others’ affirmation, and strategically choose to avoid and avert any of the subtly (or not so subtly) manipulative ways you tend to use to gain attention, applause or approval.

The Son of God’s greatest act of prayer, fasting and mercy-giving was done on the Cross, in supremely hidden love offered lavishly to His hidden Father for ungrateful humanity. It is the perfect symbol of such Lenten giving.

May my Lent and yours be a living Stations as we strive do likewise.

This week, He burns

BØRNS at the Joy Theater in New Orleans on Monday

[here’s a single post from my journal – in this busy stretch, hopefully I can resume again for Ash Wednesday]

Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher. ― Luigi Giussani

This week, my daughters and I went to a BØRNS concert. As we stood in the mosh pit there together, surrounded by a thousand people far younger than me, I was utterly overwhelmed at the thought that they let their old dad into that space of their young life. Time, perish! Alas, the end.

This week, my son drove out of state to visit some of his friends, but before he left he wanted to get my advice on some repairs he needed done on his car, catch a bite to eat with me, and talk. As we spoke together, amazed to be his father. My God, not long ago I was his age, searching for a father.

This week, my other busy-with-life son just wanted to watch a few episodes of River Monsters together. “How does he do that! Whoa! Crazy. Implausible…” As we watched, a surge of gratitude for spending such unproductive time on each other.

This week, my wife invited me to go out for drinks to just refocus on each other. It’s been a very busy stretch of life. As we sipped, smiled, spoke, I was flooded with joy in a procession of so many memories — how much life we’ve lived together since we met 30 years ago.

This week, a seminarian asked to walk and talk with me about some pressing issues he was facing. I only hoped to give him just a skosh of courage, enough to take the next best step.

This week, a friend texted me his pain, another his excitement, another her anger, a fourth a heartfelt encouragement of me to see embers burning in the dark. Such a magnificent web of life we co-occupy.

This week, I awoke around 3:00 a.m. haunted by my failures, dark shadows around me threatened to unseat my hope. Malice. I was aware whose voices they were, and prayed. I slept enough, but hope kept vigil.

In all of these, I sensed — I sense — the immense, transcendent, limitless power that surges through all relationships. Invited or un. It pulses with a divine and eternal heartbeat, seemingly wrapped in thorns, threading through us all like dancing tongues of fire; selfless love; infinite depth. “I came to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49). Veni!

We run, hide, repel, resist, douse and doubt. But sometimes, for fleeting moments, we succumb, surrender, submit, are ‘still and know’ that, underneath everything — inviting, breaking through the hard rock — His magma forever-burns for us, in us. Forging us into unity, wittingly some, unwittingly mostly.

I swear, I found myself saying {or was it Him?}: “All I need is you.”

So it seemed, after I prayed.

Hectic, havoc and the Jesus prayer

“Sinai Event.” #godhavoc emergingtruths.com

Savoring the encounter with Jesus is the remedy for the paralysis of routine, for it opens us up to the daily “havoc” of grace. — Pope Francis

This will be a hectic week of deadlines, on through the weekend upcoming, so I have no idea what time I will have to write here. I have given up on saying I won’t post for a specific amount of time, but just know it’s gonna be hit or miss.

Pope Francis’ words above, from last week’s homily on the Presentation, really ring true to me. Prayer that gives God permission to be God in us (which is the whole point of the first 3 petitions of the Our Father) unleashes havoc on evil, on fear, on anger and addiction; havoc on my tightly controlled securities; havoc on my plans for God. I mean, the Virgin Mary prayed like that just once — “let it be done to me according to your word” — and it set in motion all KINDS of personal, familial, national, imperial, preternatural and cosmic havoc.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore. — Isaiah 9:2-7

God, play havoc on all that mitigates against your peace reigning in our lives.

An AME pastor I knew in Florida, whom I have quoted here before, totally got this. He used to open his Wednesday night worship services with a marvelous prayer:

O Lord, invade our staid and steady space
With your raucous and unsteady grace

The Jesus Prayer I have found to be especially poignant in this regard. Saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” repeated rosary-like in the heart on and off throughout the day, unseals the only Name which effects what it signifies, i.e.God saves. Ask the Egyptians what THAT looks like.

I post below a rhythmic chanting of it by the Russian monks of Valaam.

I have used this Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen quote probably a dozen times here, but it is just so well stated and seems a most fitting parting. God bless you, dear readers.

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?

Saint of Gentleness

[re-post from 2012]

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. — St Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales is known as the “saint of gentleness.” He himself had an angry, even explosively angry temperament, and had to work hard at exercising gentle patience both with himself and with others. He came to a profound insight, through his own inner struggle, into the importance of not doing violence to the many “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” (Is. 42:3) both within and without. He counseled countless spiritual directors and Confessors to correct and reprove others, when necessary, with a firm and patient love, and never with impatient anger. He famously said, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.”

But he was most celebrated for his counsel to gentleness in dealing with distractions in prayer, or in facing the dark realization of one’s own sins, weaknesses and failings. After counseling many hundreds of men and women, he could see how crippling were the effects of a self-recriminating response to one’s own many imperfections. Such a strategy, he said, only serves to cripple hope and weaken one’s loving devotion to God. Beating oneself up transforms genuine spirituality into a nursery for compulsive wound-licking and chronic nit-picking judgment of others’ faults. Such an incurved ego makes one unable to assume Christ’s “other-centered” posture of love.

Once he wrote to a woman who was terribly discouraged by her constant distractions during prayer,

If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently and replace it tenderly in its Master’s presence. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back and place it again and again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.

When I came across de Sales in the early 90’s, his approach really changed my mindset in a significant way. My poor habits, repeated sins, easily distracted mind and fickle emotions often brought me to a grinding halt of discouragement. But with his gentle approach — to use a C.S. Lewis image — what were once only dark alleys leading to even darker cul-de-sacs became a Wardrobe that opened out from the narrow press of musty and stifling shadows into the bright and spacious world of Narnia. And though Narnia is still frozen in the grip of winter, hope burns fiercely bright there; for in Narnia, the Lion of Judah, once slaughtered by our sins on the Altar of Sacrifice, refuses to repudiate us in irrevocable justice, but instead embraces us in the gentleness of forever mercy.

I shared this “de Sales” insight with a Camelite nun I met on a retreat, and she said something like this:

Oh yes, I also love his advice. It’s only when I realized that God’s primary relationship with us is gentle mercy that I was really able to combine the quest for perfection Jesus commands (Matt. 5:48) with the reality of my fragility. The harder you try for purity, the more dirt shows up. I always thought that’s why Luke’s parallel version (Luke 6:36) of Matthew’s “be perfect as your Father is perfect” was “be merciful as your Father is merciful” — because they go together. Mercy, perfection.

I once thought perfection and my frailty were opposed, with perfection seeking to remove all of my frailty, my faults. But then I came to believe that they are a two-sided coin. Our limits can become a frame for the artwork that is our life. Just like any great piece of artwork needs to have defined limits to contain and focus the Artist’s intent to create a new expression of His genius. Mercy does not do violence to our frailty, but gilds it in honor with His own beauty. That’s what St. Augustine’s “happy fault of Adam” means to me, that mercy turns my junk into beauty. The logic of the Cross.

Perfection is when you’re finally able to offer God, with equal confidence and gratitude, your weakness and your strength as a full palette in service to His artwork. What a relief.