BØRNS Theology of Baptism

Emerald Pool at Zion National Park. i.redd.it

Baptism does not relieve the disease of original sin: it cures it, leaving its scars like trophies. Baptism does not offer a better set of therapies to soften death’s inevitability: it destroys death itself. Baptism does not confirm bureaucracy and status quo: it dissolves the first and overturns the second. Baptism does not insulate us against reality: it throws back the covers and kicks us out to dance naked with the real in the light of the moon. – Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

I gave a presentation back in September at a local parish on the Sacrament of Baptism. As part of my talk, I played the BØRNS song, 10,000 Emerald Pools, at the very end and gave them a copy of the lyrics. I asked those present to reflect in silence on how the lyrics might help them reflect on the theology I had presented. The results were stunning.

I had decided to use this song in my teaching after going to the BØRNS concert with my daughters last year, as his performance of this song lifted me to another world in the midst of a body-to-body packed mosh pit. The sense I had there and then of the “secular liturgy” of life that arises from Baptism washed over me and stayed for weeks afterward. I saw that every action of life, religious or not, is suffused with the potential of immersing us more deeply in the mystery of God and drawing the world we touch down with us into the “depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).

I was not expecting the depth of reflections that followed that night. I had to stop us at 20 minutes because we had already gone overtime for the evening. One man wrote me an email the next day, “I just want to tell you that your presentation plus the song and then silence equaled my having an experience of prayer I have never had. I never think about my baptism in any way but now it’s all I think of. All of that in me?? Why in the world doesn’t every Catholic know this???…”

I am beginning to think if I just speak on Baptism and its effects, I can say everything I need and yet never have had sufficient time to say it all…

This pool is life
that floods the world;
the wounds of Christ
its awesome source…

I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
Under water
Time is standing still
You’re the treasure
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!

I’ll make a living, trying to get away
10,000 fathoms, under a tidal wave
It can never pull me away
No way!
Under water
Time is standing still
You’re the treasure
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!
You’re all I need to breathe
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
You’re all I need to breathe
I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you
You’re all I need to breathe

All I need is you!
All I need is you!
It can never pull me away
Time is standing still
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!

Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee

…for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company — Bar. 5:9

This text from today’s first reading at Mass has a quiet beauty about it. Especially, “leading Israel in joy.” Let me share here some fragmented thoughts on joy.

Joy, in the Christian tradition, is a fruit of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are side-effects of living life in harmony with the will of God. I like to define joy as delight in the fulfillment of goodness, beauty and truth, all of which are the summation of a life lived in love. But unlike happiness, which demands fulfillment in the present, joy feeds off of a confident trust in the future promise of fulfillment assured by a God who is trustworthy and able.

Joy can be as elusive as the future.

This all means joy and hope are close companions. Hence, the God who “leads Israel in joy” is the God who has established for His people, in a hopeless present, the promise of a future full of hope.

Like hope, joy intensifies as the present experience of darkness holds the bright promise of future fulfillment in relief. Through the cross to the Light.

Joy requires a clear vision of our promised future fulfillment, and of the way that leads there. The vision is what we call faith, and the way is what we call love. Faith is the vision of both the Giver and that which we have been called to receive; hope is the Giver’s promise that grounds our confidence that we will receive it; love is the manner in which we receive; and joy is the delight in all three.

Jesus Himself is the Giver, the Guarantor, the Truth of our vision, the Life that is our ultimate fulfillment, and the Way of love by which we are led into joy.

Pat, who had become a dear friend of our family back in the mid 1990’s, was dying of cancer. He was terrified of death, as he feared his long life of selfish malice, of breaking hearts and lives would be waiting for him at the Last Judgment he was soon to face. His recent conversion back to faith, and life of repentance and charity, was no solace for him. He imagined only that the proportion of a few years of good will set against decades of wrongdoing would weigh against him in the final scales of justice.

Pat was joyless because he refused to accept mercy as a recklessly free gift given by a prodigal God to the undeserving. In his pain, Pat turned in on himself, wallowing in fear, drowning in anger-turned-inward, instead of “opening to the Sun above” whose joy over Pat’s return would surpass — O Paradox! — even His infinity.

My wife brought our children to visit Pat in the hospice one day. When they walked in the room, Pat began to cry. Our youngest son, about 5 at the time, jumped up into the bed and excitedly said to Pat, “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay!” Pat began to sob, and said loudly, “No it’s not!” Because of the commotion, the woman who was caring for Pat, who was a devout Catholic, told my wife that it’s probably better if they leave so he can settle down.

Later that day this woman called me to share with me the story of what followed their visit. She said,

After they left, Pat was inconsolable and agitated. So I went to his bedside and said, “Pat, listen to me. Did you feel that little boy’s innocence and love in his words to you? Didn’t you feel God in him?” Pat seemed to calm a bit, and agreed. Then I said, “Don’t you see that Jesus sent him to you to speak those words on His behalf? Pat, Jesus wanted you to know that those are the words you will hear when you die and face Him. ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay.'”

Pat settled into a calm rest, and when I left the room, he flat-lined. So be sure to tell your wife and son that they were messengers of heaven and let Pat die in peace.

And joy.

Tout est grâce, “all is grace.”

Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
And oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah

Mary the Poor

Conception of the Virgin Mary. Yes, that’s the elderly Sts. Joachim and Anne readying to re-enter the nuptial chamber… lauraclericiicons.webgallerydesign.com

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Last night I gave a talk at a parish on Mary and Baptism. What a honor to have the opportunity to speak of the mysteries of God in her regard.

I was exhausted and ready to go to bed when the time for the talk came, as it had been a non-stop day. Though, to be honest, this is also the general sad state of my life in the “over 50 club,” I have found, as I am now ready for bed by 8:00 p.m.; just as my wife and kids are ready to party. Such a downer.

I mention this detail because it became part of the talk I gave — my exhaustion, that is. Oh, yes, and one other funny detail. My talk was right after Mass, and at the end of Mass I rushed to the cry room to use the restroom. Of course, there was a line. As I stood there waiting, I heard the pastor start introducing me from the ambo, only to then inform the congregation that I was delayed as I was relieving myself.

Mortifying.

I spoke on the Sacrament of Baptism as an immersion into all of the mysteries that the Mother of God embodied in a singular way. Mary is not the great exception, I argued, but the great exemplar of all we are called to be in Christ.

In Baptism we are reborn as an immaculate new creation, washed clean and re-created to be God’s sons and daughters. I tried to hammer home the point that we are “born of God” in, as it were, God’s broken bag of water and blood (John 1:13; 3:3; 1 John 5:6). Our very being is changed as we are adopted into most secret intimacy of God’s inner life. Mary also was conceived as a new creation, reborn in the very act of coming to be.

In Baptism we are made temples of the Trinity, a living Holy of Holies, the abode of God and divine Glory’s point of entry into the world. At the Annunciation, Mary also became a Temple of the Most High God.

In Baptism we are joined to Christ’s Body, made “one flesh” and “one spirit” with Him (1 Cor. 6:17), allowing us, by grace, to share in all He is by nature. At the Annunciation, we might say that Mary cried out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this One shall be called Man, for out of Woman this One was taken” (cf. Gen 2:23).  At the foot of the Cross, she became “one flesh” with Him as He, the New Adam, called Mary “Woman,” the New Eve and mother of all the living in the new creation (John 19:26-27).

In Baptism we are plunged into Christ’s death and resurrection, dying to sin, living for God and being initiated into a divine pattern of self-sacrificial love. At her conception, at the foot of the Cross, and everywhere between, Mary died and rose with her Son. Yes, redeemed by her Son’s death before she existed. Here, we gawk in awe. O Time, swept up into the eternity of God, you are redeemed! Sing for joy!

Something like that. And I used a number of stories to illustrate my points.

Okay, so I gave this talk, but I can tell you it was not as clear as all that. In fact, I really don’t remember much of what I said. As I got into my car, I said a prayer of thanks and offered to God the frustration I felt over my exhaustion and the effect it had on my talk. I sat for a few moments in silence, and suddenly had a powerful phrase come to mind: “My greatest attribute is my poverty.”

I thought, whose poverty? God’s? Mary’s? And then I realized, it’s both. In her womb, Mary knew as no one else the poverty of a self-emptying God precisely because she was already poor. Empty of herself, i.e. sinless. Mary magnified the Lord because she, the lowly handmaiden, was created in the image of the God-Man who, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (1 Cor. 8:9).

It was as if God were saying to me, “Tom, only when you accept your absolute poverty, and join it to mine, can you magnify me, for my power is only made perfect in your weakness.” And then I wrote, “Yes, poverty is God’s supreme attribute because it is the nature of love to keep nothing for itself.”

Well, God, if weakness is what magnifies, my magnifying glass is immense. So please, Lord, feel free…

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son
Both ever-blest while endless ages run. Amen.

Gentle John

[Again, the end of semester work is enormous. I may not be able to post again until it ends next week. Thank you for all who comment here, I read them all gratefully]

The last month or so has been astonishing in the number of people who have confided to me their pains, struggles, fears. I cannot help but repeat again Henry David Thoreau’s oft quoted, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

A priest I know in Lafayette said to me recently, scratch beneath the surface of someone’s soul by listening compassionately for a stretch of time, and you’ll uncover pain.

Yes.

Amid all of these encounters, I had a remarkable experience that gave me a new perspective that is difficult to articulate. I will try.

In late October, I was preparing for a talk I gave in Baton Rouge for a pro-life fundraiser in November. I had been struggling for a few days over how to end the talk. One day, as I sat for a while in my car in silence thinking on this, Bl. John Henry Newman’s poetic prayer, Lead Kindly Light, came to mind. It fit perfectly with my theme. Lead was a prayer he wrote at a very dark point in his life when he felt lost and very much alone. As soon as I got home, I typed it into the end of my talk.

When the day came for me to head to Baton Rouge, I ended work early so I could spend a few hours entering into and inhabiting the world of my talk. I went to the levee by Lake Ponchartrain and read and re-read my talk while listening to the rhythmic waves. As I got to the prayer, I started to sing it aloud with a tune Colleen Nixon taught me. For whatever reason, I found myself in that moment absolutely overcome by a stunning, almost assaulting awareness of the presence of Newman with me. Next to me. Now that is unusual for me.

But here was what was unique about this awareness. It was of Newman’s gentleness, tenderness that I was made aware. His kindliness. I don’t know how to say it well, honestly. I sensed an immense gentleness, a gentleness that accompanies greatness. That accompanies magnanimity. That flows from a man who has suffered greatly, but who has allowed the suffering to make him not hard and callous, but tender and compassionate — because he has loved much. In fact, I can say that I sensed, above all, the love born of suffering.

Interesting to note, this brief experience came just before the month-long procession of suffering humanity neared me, and gave me a certain strength, apprenticing me in his gentle art. Anew, afresh. Deo gratias.

What a beauty that each saint brings with him or her, an entirely unique facet of the Face of God. A grace so specific that it can only be found in that one man, one woman.

Saints of God, intercede for us, befriend us, and generously share with us your grace. Amen.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

Advent

nationalblackroberegiment.com

Advent is upon us. The season graced with longing for God’s coming to rescue us in time.

This is no abstract longing, no generic rescue. He came, He comes, He will come again to enter the details of my broken, bruised, weary world, now.

In fact, He longs to enter that world of mine. So in me, longing meets longing, and God’s desire to enter the world’s darkest spaces is so extreme He made this longing His forever-Name — Yēšūă‘, God rescues.

But He needs you to long for it. To want it. To seek it. To pine for it. To beg and plead for it without respite, day and night, without ceasing, for a lifetime until you have nothing left, your strength having failed and your voice grown faint.

Then, and only then will He know you want to be rescued. Only then will you be ready to be rescued, having at last exhausted all your own resources, dropped your faltering crutches, surrendered your pathetic props — your complaints and protests, your despondency and discouragement, your cynicism and rage, your arrogance and self-reliance, your apathy.

In sum, your lack of trust.

But once you surrender all, be ready. He will come. He will, but come as He came in Yēšūă.

Infallibly.

And this rescue will be nothing as you imagined, as unexpected, as unlikely, as impossible and new as a Burning Bush in a desert waste. As crazed as a virgin conceiving. As bewildering as a glorious resurrection following an annihilating crucifixion.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Bloom where you’re planted

St Theophane

May the Lord give you the blessing
of a strong desire to stand inwardly before God.
Seek and you will find.
Seek God: such is the unalterable rule for all spiritual advancement.
Nothing comes without work.
The help of God is always ready and always near,
but is only given to those who seek and work,
and only to those seekers who, after putting all their own powers to the test,
then cry out with all their heart: Lord, help us!
So long as you hold on the Lord does not interfere.
It is as though He says:
“You hope to succeed by yourself –
Very well, go on trying!
But however long you try you will achieve nothing.”
May the Lord give you a contrite spirit,
a humble and a contrite heart. — Theophane the Recluse

The one time I did an eight day Ignatian silent retreat, I had a spiritual director guide me who had over fifty years of experience counseling people in the spiritual life. He was all at once gentle and brutal — gentle in delivery, brutal in accuracy. I filled an entire journal with insights from those days.

There were two wrap-up insights he shared the final day of the retreat that remain as poignant today as they were then. The first went like this,

You have two choices whenever you find yourself faced with a difficult trial in life. Either discover in it a cross given you as a path to sanctity or find a way to move on.

Then he read to me 1 Cor. 10:13, adding,

But always remember, everywhere you go the cross awaits. Have no illusions. And, Tom, do not fall into the rut of constant complaining, of second guessing everything, or wishing things were different by saying, “If only…I would be what God wants!” These keep you from embracing God’s will and get you stuck in a spiritual adolescence.

The second insight was the quote above from the Eastern Orthodox spiritual writer, St. Theophane. My director commented,

Bring everything to God in prayer. Pray as if everything depended on His grace. It does. Whenever you travel to a new place during the day — if you go home, to work, to shop or visit a friend or family or church — beg the Holy Spirit to precede you, to go ahead of you and prepare the way ahead of you. If you are tempted to complain, call on the Spirit. On the Mother of God. Your Guardian Angel.

But if you choose self-reliance as your way of dealing with life, and withhold from God your full Yes, God will absolutely respect that and leave you to yourself to face things on your own, until you see how far you get.

He paused for a moment and, looking at me with a smile, took my hand and said, “And you see where that’s gotten you?” We had a hearty laugh.

Show me the Father

Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring … We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. — Pope Francis

[when I read this quote, it reminded me of a post I had written in 2014…so here it is again]

Quite a number of years ago, my wife and I were friendly with a woman who worked in business with her husband and was (at the time) a mother of two small children. She was smart, was a “mover and a shaker” and had a quick and sarcastic wit. Both she and her husband were very devoted to their Catholic faith and were involved in various parish activities. For all appearances, they were the model thriving family.

The rest of what I share is with permission.

One day the husband asked me if I would meet him for lunch, and after three hours of conversation I understood why. Their marriage was in crisis, and from his perspective it was largely because she was strangling him, and their children, with her relentless and unattainable expectations. He said, “She criticizes everything I do and it’s driving me insane. And it’s making the kids resent her. But I know it’s not her fault. She’s just passing on what she received.”

He went on to tell me she had grown up in a hyper-critical home, with a father who was demanding, never affectionate and who never made her feel she measured up to his expectations. Her mother was passive and never stood up to him to protect her little girl. Then, with copious tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Look, she hates herself and I can’t help her anymore. I have tried to help her love herself, but I’ve reached my limits. I’m done.”

They ended up going to counseling, and made enormous progress. After about six months had passed since the lunch, the woman emailed me a very lengthy note expressing her own feelings of anger and hatred toward God. She said, “I can’t get over the sense that God is far away really and never quite happy with me because I never measure up to his demands. To think of God as a father and me as his daughter is totally suffocating … counseling has made me want to stop living a facade of perfection in my life. But now I’m scared because part of that includes my faith in God which has been a total facade.”

As I do so often with people who ask me to help them grow in their relationship with God, I encouraged her make space for silent prayer in her life. I recommended she try to go to Eucharistic Adoration once a week for an hour, sit quietly in front of Jesus and very simply share all the contents of her heart. Among other things, I said,

When you sit in prayer with Jesus, keep still and just look at Him. Allow whatever is deep inside of you to surface. Don’t run away from whatever agitation rises up in the quiet. Let it burn through you and then speak to Him about it. Give permission to Jesus to enter into your heart freely and surprise you. Say over and over, “Show me the Father.” That is Jesus’ entire mission, so see what He has to say …

A few weeks later, I received a handwritten thank you note from the woman. In it, she said,

… I just had to share this with you. After a few tries in the Chapel taking your advice (which was hard as hell by the way), one night I experienced for the first time in my entire life the feeling of being washed with unconditional love from God the Father. You know what a big deal that is. I was a total wreck and it’s all your fault! 🙂 But here’s the million dollar insight I got — I can only love myself when I know I’m loved like that by somebody who knows me through and through and not just the fake me that was most of my life …

I’m sure you know from your wife that a woman just wants to be noticed … That’s totally what I knew that night. God noticed everything inside of me. All the crap especially. But here’s the new part: that’s what he loved. The crap! Not just the “perfect” parts of me which were the only parts I ever felt were lovable. Excuse my French, but that’s just f-ing wild …