“Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” — St. Teresa of Calcutta

Here’s an excerpt from a scripted portion of my talk last Saturday on the lay apostolate in the world, i.e. the mission to be secular saints and infiltrate the world with the love of God. I did not get to present most of it and I never edited it, so please excuse all mistakes.

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There’s a lovely phrase frequently used by Evangelicals when they evangelize, “God has a plan for your life.” At the heart of that “plan,” Catholics would say, is the universal call to holiness. God created each of us to be a saint. Holiness is nothing more, or less, than being made perfect in Christ’s love.

This vocation, regardless of our state or circumstance in life, is renewed from moment to moment. Every new situation we find ourselves in is a fresh calling from Jesus: COME, FOLLOW ME. My child awakens at 2:00 a.m. with a nightmare: Come, follow me out of your rest. My boss fires me unjustly: Come, follow me in patient endurance and hope. My irritating neighbor knocks on my door asking me to move my car, again (which is actually in front of my property): Come, follow me in speaking the truth in charity. My alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. to pray before I leave for work at 5:00, and I’m tired: Come, follow me into your prayer room where I await your sacrificial offering. The doctor gives me news of terminal cancer: Come, follow me along the way of the cross, of dark faith and of trust. When we see all life as a vocation, everything becomes a new opportunity to choose God’s plan by choosing life, faith, hope, trust, patience, honesty, kindness, forgiveness – in a word, by choosing love…

Love of God and love of neighbor.

But what is love? To love is to will the well-being, good, fulfillment, salvation of another. All of the commandments are the substance of love, giving love meaning and direction, and rooting it in justice. Of course, we can love our neighbor by willing their good, but what of God? He is Goodness itself, purely actualized. We cannot will His well-being, good or fulfillment.

So how can we love Him?

By willing what He wills. And what does He will? The good of our neighbor. And how do we do that? By keeping His commandments. And so it all circles back on itself, a closed and endlessly revolving circle that binds love of God and neighbor inextricably together. They can never be separated — when you love God, you are loving your neighbor; and when you love your neighbor, you are loving God. God does not compete with His creation, as if we had to choose God or others. Only when we sin do we establish a competition.

Jesus commanded us, taking His words from Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This does not, by the way, mean that self-love and self-care are model of genuine love. (nothing against self-care) Rather, this commandment means that to love one’s neighbor is to love oneself. What I do to my neighbor I do to myself. If I kill my neighbor, I commit suicide. If I slander my neighbor, I slander myself. You might even say that God Himself obeys this same commandment. Inasmuch as God made us in His own image, and became Man, He made the welfare and good of humanity His own. He loves humanity as Himself, loves us as another self. This binding love meant the Father could not but raise Christ from the grave into eternal life.

God wishes us to think of Him the same way: when we love neighbor, we love not only ourselves but Him. God does not eat sacrifices, like the pagans thought, but His hunger and thirst is satisfied through our feeding the hungry and thirsty — “I was hungry, thirsty and you gave me food, drink.” Or Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.”

Dorothy Day made this point stunningly when she said that we only love God as much as love person we like the least. This is the hallmark of Christian love: sacrificial, self-less, other-centered, forgiving love. God loves most to be loved through our enemies. Only such love possesses restorative, reconciling power. It’s also why Fr Walter Ciszek, who spent 23 awful years in Soviet work-prison camps, said that persecution is really our enemies testing how serious we are about this love thing. So when Christians suffer abuse and hardship and persecution for their faith, their first recourse must not be outcry and  lawsuits, but mercy, patient love, and courageous, uncomplaining, un-bitter endurance. Even as they pursue justice.

Because every vocation is always a declension of love, the fundamental vocational discernment question is never, “What does God want for me?” but “what does God want for others?” Never, “What good will this bring me, but “How can I best, most efficiently expend everything I have been given on others? How can I best obey the law of the gift? What is (as my own spiritual director once said it) the most likely way I can be assured to die broke, having expended my gifts on other’s well-being and divine glory?”

Discernment is about the alignment of the gifts and desires with the needs around me. A really brilliant Sudanese missionary priest I met years ago said, when I asked him how he decided to become a priest,

I can tell you this — it didn’t begin with my exploring “I, me, my;” but with exploring “thou, thee, thy.” God, neighbor. My mother taught me that as a small child: You will find God only when you fill the mouth of your brother, your sister. In American culture so much discernment is an agonizing over personal fulfillment and happiness — what will make me feel fulfilled, me happy, me complete? Love can’t start there or it will always be a tortured process, locked in your ego. Because the center of gravity in every vocation is always the other, the neighbor, the church, the village, the world, God.

A vocation feels like a direct compliment of God to me: I am special, unique, gifted, God has called me by name. Yes, there is truth in that. But vocation must always be attended by mission, which is always a direct compliment for the neighbor to whom we are sent by God. Vocation serves mission. Sometimes people get stuck in naval-gazing vocation circles because they know if they say Yes, freedom tightens, the mission begins, and we must forget ourselves. But this is natural in a culture that claims rights without responsibility, gifts without giving.

For me my discernment to be a priest was simple, but not easy. There is a real need for priests, I had a desire, an openness and I had the gifts to accomplish priestly ministry. So, I am a priest. I saw the apostles did not deliberate over personal fulfillment when Jesus called. They dropped all. With the hand on the plow, no turning back. The rich young man in the Gospel? He stopped and deliberated his personal happiness and fulfillment, weighed his options and went away sad. The Devil makes us look back over and over, always wondering if other pastures are greener.

When Jesus calls, He does not say: “Do you want to feel happy and fulfilled and special?” No, he says, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep, tend my lambs.” Our response should always be, “Yes, Lord! Now, which sheep, how to feed, how to tend?”

Jesus is clear, mission is really cross-carrying. Pick up your cross and follow me. This reminds us every day that thinking of our calls as a an ego trip, rather than death-to-self for the other, is a total farce. Only when you embrace this will you stay faithful when you face all of the hardships, temptations, struggles that will come your way. If the whole vocational edifice is built on me, my, mine you will fall fast, like a house built on sand.

To love, think and live like this, we must be immersed, soaked, drenched in God’s love; be intimate with Him, drawing our power from Him like a branch grafted to a Vine. We have to have our imaginations captured by the greatness of this adventure — like Augustine said: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” Once you fall in love with Jesus and allow His love to enter your life, you become more able to respond to His call at every moment, consecrating the very earth by every drop of blood you shed.

Pope Benedict helps us here:

If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, I am incapable of seeing in my neighbor the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others.

Only then can your vocational mission look, as it must, like this…

Mashley, Prison and Storms

A medley today.

First, a new Maria and Ashley video. MIKA’s Grace Kelly. It’s playful and spikes some amazing pitch peaks! Always gives me joy to share…

I’d also like to share a bit of my yesterday before I go to bed…

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at the Cathedral in Pensacola for a Lenten day of reflection. I was invited to speak on a topic dear to my heart, the lay vocation to sanctify the world as “secular saints.” I spoke alongside Dale and Susan Recinella, both of whom serve on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Florida to Florida’s Death Row and Solitary Confinement population. They are two extraordinary people who incarnate both the justice and the mercy of God. So while it was my job to offer a fresh look at the Catholic theological and spiritual vision for the lay apostolate, it was theirs to give concrete evidence of what it looks and feels like when you live that out in a radical and real way. I’ll share below a 10 minute clip of a talk Dale gave at Jesuit High School in Tampa on his apostolic work in prisons.

At the very end of my talks, this wonderfully joyful and faith-filled woman came up to me and shared with me a quote (she has framed on her wall) that knocked my socks off. Here’s what it meant to me, per my journal entry…

Her quote captured with one image all I had tried to say about the (mostly ignored) meaning and power of Baptism and Confirmation that confer on each of the lay faithful the exalted vocation to consecrate the world itself to God.

These Sacraments introduce into creation an entirely new and destabilizing principle of divine life — Emmanuel — inaugurating the overthrow of death and the re-creation and transformation of all things, as God becomes an “insider” in the world — first by becoming Man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and then, through faith and the Sacraments, continuing His incarnation in each of us. Again, just reflect on this — in the Sacraments, the Word of the Father extends the fullness of His “becoming flesh” to us (John 1:14), making us His Body, drawing us through His death and resurrection, and filling us with the roaring Wind and raging Fire of Heaven (Acts 2:1-13). God became man that man might become God, as St. Athanasius famously put it.

Wow.

Every time we say Yes to God, Heaven’s tempest — the Spirit of Jesus — fills the earth and God unleashes His own re-creating storm on the storm-battered ruins of this world (1 Pet. 3:18-21). Indeed, the God-Man allows Himself to be ruined with us, only then to rise and still the storm (Job 38:1; Matt. 8:24-26; 27:50-53; John 20:19-23), preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who are oppressed and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19). Like Elijah, the faithful are caught up in the Whirlwind, in a chariot of Pentecostal Fire, to bring earth to heaven and heaven to earth (2 Kings 2:11).

Man, those are some seriously volatile Sacraments we receive. Saints are dangerous.

It was so appropriate that, as I drove home from Pensacola yesterday with her quote resonating in my heart, I passed through several lines of violent thunderstorms. And all on the feast of the Annunciation. Deo gratias.

I asked the woman to allow me to record her sharing the quote, and she graciously agreed:

Here’s Dale:

Staycationing in God

Children play with a suitcase near a camp for people displaced by the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, March 23, 2010. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, killing and injuring thousands and leaving more than a million people living in makeshift camps. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

[I will not post until Sunday because I have another very hectic week. Hence, this post’s theme…]

Instead of wondering when our next vacation is we should set up a life we don’t need to escape from. — Seth Godin

My daughter shared this quote with me last weekend, and said: “Isn’t that great?” I said, “It is! And the busier your life gets, the harder it becomes!” After that exchange, later that night, I wrote out a few rambling thoughts in my journal…

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When beset by worries, anxieties and responsibilities, the temptation is immense to narrow the world around me and refuse to live fully in the present moment. It’s natural, in a certain sense, as I only have so much psychic energy to spend at any given time and stress naturally constricts my vision. But what I tend to miss out on when I get in that “survival mode” is the capacity to receive each arriving moment as a gift laden with rich possibilities for discovery and grace.

We call this attentiveness to the now by words like mindfulness, awareness or watchfulness. In the Catholic tradition we refer to the “sacrament of the present moment.” Regardless of the term used, for a Christian these all represent a disciplined attentiveness to the truth that each now is an opportunity for a singular and fresh encounter with the God who is at all times calling creation into existence.

In this sense, the primal event of the Big Bang has no advantage over us in its proximity to the shock-and-awe experience of God’s creating  words: “Let there be…” When God spoke creation into being, He did not just create cosmic raw material and then saunter off to attend to other things. Rather, the God who is timeless called into existence, all-at-once, every single moment of cosmic time. From 13+ billion years ago to the end of time, all is wholly and immediately present to the freshness of God’s creative Word. I’ve always thought that the words to Eleanor Farjeon’s hymn, Morning Has Broken, capture elegantly this sense of “springing into being” so well.

We live mostly in ordinary time, in the daily routines and rhythms of school and work and family and trash day. Sometimes slow, sometimes harried. So how can we avoid ordinary time’s seemingly natural slouch into stale, dull time? How can we fend off the sense that ordinary time’s well-worn grooves or tight strictures are a rut or an imprisonment from which we require periodic vacating?

To see ordinary time not as a prison but as a Gate, I must be able to rediscover the Gift of Wonder again and again. Wonder, the capacity to be #surprised!, originates in God. Wonder abides deep within his eternally proceeding Fire, Fire once stolen from Heaven for us by Christ as he breathed his last on the cross.

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

Wonder’s raging fire topples walls, plows ruts and expands horizons. Fire fills the Kingdom that Baptism first inaugurated within me. God’s is an ever-nearing Kingdom, cast by Christ into a world grown cold in sin. It is a Kingdom filled with song and praise, dancing and feasting, angels and rivers, seas and orchards; a realm without tears or pain or sorrow or loss.

In prayer I enter, and am entered by, this Kingdom. Intimately. In prayer, I allow God’s reign entry into the fissures and marrow and sinews and quarks of my being. In prayer I pass through the Wardrobe into Narnia, through the Sea into the spacious Promised Land. All of this transpires in the heart of the one who prays with the heart. It’s why Satan, lord of the icy prison, abhors prayer.

Only if we live in prayer will we come to see, taste, touch, smell and hear the coming of that Kingdom’s King, who comes softly as a zephyr (1 Kings 19:12), whose delight is to play among the children of men (Proverbs 8:31). The God of ever-present refreshment, celebration, newness and restorative rest is so near. Just listen now, in the silence. Do you sense him? The Wonder-Counselor is with us, working joyfully, eagerly awaiting our offerings, to render them translucent, transubstantiating them into sacraments of His Kingdom. Whatever it is we choose to offer Him– time, work, play, possessions, relationships, pain, boredom, dreams, regrets, love. Even a tiny puddle.

But do I have an offering to give? I can only offer what I am able to receive, and I cannot receive if I don’t first loosen my white-knuckled grip on everything. I can feel the tension right now! Here, let me release my possessing, controlling, consuming, using, abusing, squandering, self-centered and ungrateful grinding through the moments of each day; moments that so quickly bloom and fade away. I walk amid lush meadows of magnificent flowers, yet I thoughtlessly crush them underfoot because I live elsewhere than where I am. I long to pray with the immediacy of wonder:

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Annie Dillard said so well, “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Striving to “be there,” present in the moment. Present to the beauty of grace in life, in real-time. Allowing it to drench my soul and shape me. What a wonderful definition of contemplative prayer: Permitting the grace of the moment to shape me. St. Thomas Aquinas defines contemplation as a “simple gaze on truth.”  A simple gaze is receptive, uncomplicated, not manipulative or exploitative, allowing reality to be what it is, the Real to be who he is.

Gazing simply, consistently, receptively on the God of Jesus. Crucified, dead, buried, risen. Letting this God be God, rather than me writ large. Doing within me all he wills.

This is the secret of liberating incarcerated grace. The Passover God is an emancipator. Let him enter, the King of glory. He will bend your prison bars into a Gate opened out into vast and fragrant meadows.

But if I persist in barring this Kingdom’s entry, failing to pray, I remain pressed, hemmed in, stifled in narrow places.

I love vacations. I find them so important for resetting my inner compass. But I don’t want to live my ordinary time bereft of wonder, depleted of joy, blind to beauty. I choose now to draw near to my recreating God. Come, Lord Jesus!

Quelle différence!

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My wife, Patti, and I often laugh about the differences between us. And there are many! Personality styles, temperaments, habits, perceptions. On a sliding spectrum, here would be some of our more general differences: She’s an extroverted party girl, I’m an introverted book worm. She’s decisive and clear, I’m deliberative and nuanced. She’s a neat-freak, I’m comfortable with piles. She’s practical, I’m theoretical. She’s able to negotiate complexity with ease, I’m good with one thing at a time. She likes country, I like rock. She loves the city, I love the forest. She’s a night person, I’m a morning person. She’s detail oriented, I’m big picture. On that last point, here’s a wedding anniversary card I gave her ten years ago:

Some of those differences complement really well, others clash, others are tolerated. But both of us would be in full agreement that our presumption of a Jesus-centered marriage that’s a sacramental covenant, our daily life of prayer as individuals and as a couple, really is what makes it possible for all of those differences between us to become material for creativity and growth and color. And humor.

Faithful, thriving and lifelong love between two very different people, who are also sinners, is hard work. But love loves a challenge. My grandfather, who was a business executive, used to extol for me the virtues of manual labor, and the dignity of manual laborers. He would say, “The body was made for hard work.” I would say the same of love, it’s made for hard work. It thrives on hard work. Especially, love loves redemptive work, loves facing brokenness and leading it to wholeness. At least God’s love does.

One of my dear friends, who is a total lol character and is in quite a challenging marriage, says of her husband,

He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my pain in the ass. I love all of him. But I always tell him, “And I’m fully aware that I’m your pain in the ass, too.” If we both get that, face it, embrace it and get on with it it totally works. But when one of us forgets they’re an ass too, and forgets that love’s a two-way deal, it totally breaks down.

They are both people of faith and they say that without their faith they would likely never have stayed married with all their differences and difficulties. Faith, she’s said, gives them a vision of what tough love looks like, gives them hope that God will provide in tough times, and makes them aware every day of the gravity of their marital vows as something God has joined. “It’s bigger than us,” she once said, “and when you get that it keeps all the small problems small and the big ones manageable.”

I once emailed her this line: “I think of marriage as being tasked by God with carrying your Sacrament through life like it’s a Communion Host that Jesus placed in your joined hands on your wedding day. And that Host is Jesus and everyone else in your life whom Jesus sends your way to be loved. Children, friends, neighbors, co-workers. And Jesus says to both of you: Hold this Host with reverence, don’t drop it, and when you die you can return it to me as your final and supreme sacrificial offering.” She replied to my email, “That’s perfect! And when I think of walking through life with [her husband] with joined hands all the time? And doing that while dealing with kids and in-laws and everybody else who just shows up into our marriage? With love!? Sweet Jesus! That takes a lot of patient balancing and coordination! That’s our 23 years in a nutshell! Pray we don’t drop it!!!”

Let me end with a pair of viral videos that capture humorously the marital difference. The first was a real BBC interview I posted a week or so ago, the second is a funny follow up. My wife sent the second one to me last night, because, in so many ways, This is Us…

 

Chewing tobacco, gags and Jesus

What do Jesus, chewing tobacco and the Crusades have to do with each other? Read this re-post from 2014, re-posted just because it was such a delightful experience for me! I mistakenly posted this twice recently…so here it is a final time. Enjoy Kari at the end!

I thought today it might be useful to share a recent experience I had attempting to be faithful to St. Peter’s command, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you.” — 1 Peter 3:15

I traveled to Pittsburgh for a conference back in December. On my flight back to New Orleans, I was seated next to a man from rural Alabama who was on his way home for Christmas to visit his daughter. He was a single dad, as his daughter’s mother had abandoned both him and her early on and moved away to another state. His mom and dad helped him raise her. He had a thick Alabama accent, donned a University of Alabama ball cap and chewed tobacco the entire flight, spitting the brown juice every few minutes into an empty Coke bottle with remarkable precision. The indescribable sounds accompanying this 90 minute dip-spit ritual served as a fine appetite suppressant and flipped an occasional gag-reflex on.

He was very chatty, and spent 30 minutes telling me about his six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off contract work in Pittsburgh. I didn’t really understand everything he said, as we were next to one of the jet engines, but it had something to do with dredging contaminated materials. After he shared his last story about his co-workers’ nighttime drinking binges, the stewardess broke his train of thought to ask us if we wanted any of those air-filled packets with 5 mini-pretzels in them. When he picked up the conversation again, he said, “Damn man, I’ve been chewin’ your ear off! Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

I thought, here it comes.

I told him that I taught theology and served as academic dean at a Roman Catholic seminary in New Orleans.

He said, “Whoa. That’s different.”

I replied, “Yep.”

After about two minutes of silence, he continued, “Hey, I’m a history buff, and I’ve always wanted to ask a Catholic this question. Why did the Catholic popes kill all those people in the crusades?”

I spent about 4 or 5 minutes trying to set the crusades in historical context, tried to explain a Catholic take on “just war” and proposed some ways one might consider a medieval crusade as just, as unjust, or as both just and unjust. In other words, I tried to explain that moral judgments on complex historical events should never be oversimplified for the sake of a slam-dunk point. When I had finished my meandering argument, he said,

Cool. Makes sense. Thanks for explaining that. When I went to college I was always told that the Catholic crusades were proof that popes just wanted to control the world and that the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment brought an end to that. You know, there’s no Catholic church anywhere around where I live, so I don’t ever get to talk to Catholics. And when I’m in Pittsburgh I just hang around with my work buddies, and trust me, none of them go to church even if they were Catholic.

Then, without missing a beat, he began to tell me about why he didn’t go to church. He said,

My mom and dad went to the Baptist and Methodist churches once in while when I was a kid, but mostly dad and us went fishing on Sundays. I’ve always thought that people who go to church were just as bad as those who don’t, so I figure, what’s the point? I just don’t get why there’s so many churches and they all disagree. How can Christians say they’ve got the true religion when they don’t even agree on their own? I just try to be a good person and keep to myself. I don’t drink. But I don’t think about God much, either. Just never comes up much. But my daughter [who is 14] goes to a Presbyterian church with her friend these days and when I come back in town she tries to drag me with her. She’s good for me.

I asked him if he planned to go to church with his daughter this Christmas. He said,

Maybe, but we’ll see. I mean, you’re Catholic and you teach the bible to priests. So why do you go to church?

As he continued his ritual spitting, I asked him what he knew about why God asked the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. We talked about that a bit. Then I explained how Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday morning made Sunday the new Sabbath for Christians, and how it was the eighth day of creation. He thought that was neat. Then I told him the story about what motivated Christian martyrs of 3rd century north Africa to go to Mass on Sundays, even though it was illegal. I told him how this one group of Christians on trial before a Roman prefect explained their choice to risk execution to worship their God this way:

Without Sunday we cannot live!

I also mentioned the need to worship and give thanks to God not just as individuals but as a family of faith. I said only God gets to decide how and when he is to be worshiped, and pointed out the many blessings that God pours out in the celebration of the Eucharist that makes the rest of our week a whole lot better. As he actually seemed to be listening, I asked him why he bothers to celebrate his daughter’s birthdays, why it’s so important for families to gather at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, or why human beings dedicate any special days and times to gather and celebrate important things in life. That then led to a great side-conversation about the devastating effects his grandmother’s death had on his extended family.

She was the anchor of our family. She always brought everyone together for special times and it kept our family close. My happiest childhood memories are being at her house for family get togethers. But now that she’s gone, there’s nothing left to hold us together any more. It’s sad. Now that she’s gone the center unraveled, all the old grudges people had before now keep them from ever talking. My grandma always forced us to get together, and she’d say to anyone who’d complain, with fire in her eyes: “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family!”

What a perfect segue! I said,

That’s exactly what Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist together every Sunday as a faith family together. If you look at Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, they were always arguing. He forced people to be together who would never have otherwise hung out together. Jesus brought enemies and rivals together to show us how God wanted people to live, and that God is the only one who can reconcile everybody together. Take Him out, it all unravels. That’s really what going to church is supposed to be about, God bringing us together, making us forget the grudges and feeding us with His best food just like your grandmother fed you all.

After a brief pause, he said,

Damn, that’s deep. I’ll have to think about that one.

That was the end of our exchange. We were silent for the rest of the flight. After we landed, he told me that his daughter had a serious and chronic illness. I told him that even if he was not ready to go back to church yet, he could pray. And I said I would pray for her. I said, “If you love her, the best thing you can do is pray for her.” He said,

Right. Well, I’ve never been a praying man but that’s a good reason to pray. Thanks, man.

And that was the end of our conversation. I wondered if I should ask him if I could pray for her at that moment, but I didn’t. As I sat in the Atlanta airport, I wished I had. I thought of the charismatic Catholic woman in Florida I know who would pray with anyone anywhere, and thought of her gentle boldness that deeply impacted so many people. But what I was grateful for was the rare clarity of mind I had that so often escapes me when I am taken off guard by deep questions, posed by a stranger seated inches away from me. He challenged me not just to teach theology and history (which for me is safer), but to witness (which is riskier).

I find that my conversations with curious people wondering about faith give me a healthy opportunity to self-critically reflect on what it means for me to share my Catholic faith in Christ in a manner that is respectful and bold, personal and thoughtful. What it mostly looks like is finding natural openings that allow faith to speak to real life concerns — where they’re “at” — and giving God’s Spirit freedom to work through the uniqueness of that moment.

I will end with Mother Teresa’s favorite prayer (penned by Bl. John Henry Newman). It is really the prayer of the evangelizer. Please join me in asking Christ to make us fitting instruments of his Light.

Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance
everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so to shine as to be light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from you.
None of it will be ours.
It will be you shining on others through us.
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best
by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching,
not by words, but by our example;
by the catching force –
the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.

Amen.

“Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Screen Face. baristanet.com

[these are loosely joined reflections on some ‘temptations of new media’ that I wrote about last Lent. I decided to post them now after I happened on an article that seemed to offer a perfect coda]

Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. — Pope Francis

I think I can speak for most parents with younger children when I say that one of the greatest struggles these days is how to manage — and teach them to manage — their use of digital technologies and new (especially social) media. Just a very few thoughts on this today.

It’s ubiquitous, what my wife and I call the “screen face.” That blank zombie-like stare, bathed in a dim glow, that eloquently captures the existential state of a child (or adult) caught in the act of tuning out their immediate surroundings in order to enter into a virtual world mediated through silicon chips and LED screens. More and more studies are uncovering the deleterious effects the over-use of screen time can have, including the rewiring of brains in a manner that inverts virtual and real worlds or that produces effects in the brain similar to heroine addiction. Yes, of course, immense good can be accomplished through the medium of screens. This blog I am typing right now betrays too harsh of a protest. And, as Pope Benedict said, “Do not be afraid of new technologies!” I’m presupposing that. But then there’s an insidiously addictive, dissociating effect that over-exposure to phones, laptops and tablets can produce that causes Patti and me — and so many others we know — terrible parenting anxiety.

What to do? When I am asked that, I say that we’re figuring it out with every other parent who has had this challenge thrust upon them from every direction, including school. I will share a very few, mostly general, musings. And all personal examples I use first received permission for anonymous sharing from the main characters.

First, parents must themselves model healthy, balanced, disciplined habits of technology use. What I call techno-asceticism (asceticism refers to habits of discipline that help one achieve self-mastery in pursuit of excellence). Your words mean nothing at all if you are abusing your own rules, or worse, if you have no rules at all and leave technology use to whim. And I don’t mean abusing only when children are around you, watching you, but always, because in the spiritual world every action, even the most secret and interior one, affects all; and especially affects those entrusted to your care. In the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a purely private sin or vice, as the “butterfly effect” obtains in that unseen realm 24/7. As Fr. Tom Hopko often said, “One secret lustful or hateful thought poisons the whole universe. That’s why we confess those dark secrets aloud in the light of Confession. But just the same, every virtuous act perfumes the world.”

Limits, limits, limits. Strong and smart limits, which include time-use, space limits (e.g. never a phone used at a meal) or content limits with age-appropriate parental supervision & the use of good filters. Our household motto: never never ever allow your child to use devices after bedtime. Sleep should be a screen-free time zone. I know a parent who fairly recently told me that she did not feel she could ever take the phone away from her teenage daughter, even at night, because she feared her daughter would resent her and shut down. But as a result, she said, her daughter is continuously sleep deprived and lost her faith by becoming deeply involved (at night) in a goth-atheist reddit community. I asked her, “What first prevented you from taking the phone away at night?” She described to me her daughter’s reaction when she first took the phone away from her one night. She said, “She screamed and threatened to kill herself. It really terrified me because she seemed to act like a drug addict being deprived of a hit. I felt paralyzed and just gave in because I was afraid of facing those threats, or what was beneath them. I regret it now. I feel guilty about it. But I feel it’s too late.” I said, “It’s never too late.”

As a family we have, for the last 9 or 10 years, practiced “Screen-Free Sundays.” That means extremely restricted use of all screens, limited to communication necessity, family movies, sports on TV. But because negation itself is not sufficient to cultivate character and joy, we work hard to make Sunday a creative, fun, meaningful day with interactive activities like family Mass, cooking, eating out (rarely), board games, feeding the homeless at a local shelter, outdoor activities, zoo, fishing, walking, biking, drawing, painting, visiting with friends. And all homework that requires computers must be completed by Saturday evening, which teaches time management and advance planning.

Once every 4 months or so we have Sunday Mass in our home, inviting our children’s friends and various other people to join us for an afternoon of food, fellowship, secular and sacred music ending with the celebration of Mass on our dining room table. We invite different priests each time to come and share their vocation story and offer some catechesis. We are so grateful for these priests’ generous gift of time and faith to do this!

I have to say with great gusto that the whole screen-free thing is a liberating practice, and my wife is the genius behind it.

Face to face relating with people and things, we insist to our children unto irritation, always remains the Queen, while virtual relating with people and things through screens remains the Queen’s Handmaiden. The temptation is immense to drift off into an online fantasy world to escape immediate life commitments and relationships. Even if it’s called FaceTime or Facebook, it’s not the same as the faces of flesh and blood.

Sacraments are all about “real” presence, about encountering God through the material world and flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s why Sacraments can never be done through the Ethernet or the Internet. Or why Mass on TV, which does offer enormous benefits for the home-bound, can never equal Mass in person. Spiritual Communion, though marvelously efficacious, always begs for consummation in bodily ingestion of the Flesh and Blood of God. Icons, which allow us to see into the Age to Come through a “mirror dimly,” always lead us toward a face to face and embodied encounter with the Realities they mediate. Otherwise they become idols and illusions, keeping us at a safe distance from Christ and His Mystical Body.

Living at the speed of life. Digital technology too easily gives us the false impression that life, dislikes or boredom can be clicked or swiped away, and that only interesting, entertaining and pleasurable things that I like are worth engaging and hold my attention. This can quickly become a whole worldview. This digital-culture A.D.D. makes it difficult to live life at its real pace, which is an uneven pace. A culture of swipe also makes it really tough to love the people we’re stuck with, people who take time and patience and sustained attention to love. Digital A.D.D. can make it agonizing to listen, in un-skippable silence, to a slowly revolving world that only gradually yields its deep secrets to those who wait long and listen closely.

A college student once asked me to give him spiritual counsel. We met several times and I quickly discerned he was a digital media junkie. So I asked him to spend 10 minutes every morning in total silence, repeating the Jesus prayer. When I met with him the next month and asked him how it went, he said: “Torture. I hated every moment of it. I’d rather have my eyes plucked out.”

Suffering life’s coming at each moment is essential to being human, and our culture of escape, of entertainment-on-demand, of binge-watching, of deletion and x-ing out or scrolling down is no friend to the real work of living, loving, working and growing in wisdom, charity, heroism and faithfulness amid the often droning dull daily duties that are the substance of lasting joy and penetrating sanctity.

One dad I know at our parish told me that one of his ‘tweenage’ sons once said to him, while he was in the middle of trying to explain to his son a consequence he was imposing, “Man I wish I could x you out.” Well, let’s just say that the next month for that child was 100% screen free, and the child had to work out a plan with his teachers of how to do his homework without a computer. #dadpower

Okay, I’ll just stop here and end with (1) an excerpt from an article last week in the Times-Picayune by Laura A. Jayne and (2) a cool video on this topic:

Parents use the devices to keep children entertained during errands and long car rides. OK, whatever. But now they hand the phone over to a child at home so they can make dinner without listening to the kid whine. Listening to your child whine is a time-honored part of parenting. It makes you glad they (you hope) eventually move out on their own. And now children are playing electronic games at parades. We have to decide something is wrong with just turning over a smart phone to a child any time he or she wants it.

I teach at Loyola University, and it can be a challenge getting students to listen in class and ignore their phones. And we are fascinating here! (As fun as Nyx!) So it’s no surprise that researchers also have found that high use of mobile devices is linked to anxiety in college students. Anxiety to stay on top of things. Anxiety that they are missing out. Anxiety when the phone is lost or broken. I see it. We know our kids are using phones too often for too much – but while we complain about the usage of our teenagers, we are handing the phones over to our toddlers. By the time they come to college, the phone is a security device.

Do we want to be a nation of anxiety-ridden adults incapable of enjoying the world around us? No, we do not. So, take the smart phone away from your kid. Relish the boredom.

Creative Lenten Penances

paintedprayerbook.com

On Mardi Gras, as I sipped an Abida Amber, I was inspired to text a bunch of people I know all over the country and ask them: “Would you share with me a creative Lenten penance you’ve done in the past, or are doing this year, so I can share it anonymously (or not) on my blog?” People married, single, divorced, teenagers, middle-aged, a 78 year old and 2 priests replied.

Wow. I was amazed at the response. 23 texts/emails. So humbling and beautiful and inspiring. I will just paste them all here for you to read. Thanks to all who took the time in making themselves vulnerable enough to share them with me. Most of them came as texts, and I will just leave them just as they are. May they inspire your own Lenten practices!

I won’t post again until I have a fresh inspiration, and to give your Inbox a rest!

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Sorry for the delay. Thanks so much for the consideration Tom. Majorly humbling. My first response would be that everyone should just listen to Mashley. But I digress…

If not possible, there are two things I would like to share. Both have not been pulled off to perfection internally or in lived reality. They’re great challenges that I try to navigate.

First, I try to take the beatitudes and break them into weekly reflections for Lent. Though the number of beatitudes and weeks of Lent don’t perfectly match, I try to make them work close enough. Each week, I try to focus on a beatitude. Keeping one beatitude in front my eyes. How is this one manifested in the world. How’s it manifested in my life. How is it manifested in my words and actions. In my encountering Christ work, I stumbled upon a guy that is a theology teacher in town. He really schooled me in the beauty of the beatitudes. Ever since, I’ve tried to find a practical way to tear them open and allow them to infect me. Lent seemed ideal.

The last way is a use of media. Media sometimes takes over me during the year. A natural progression, or digression. I made an intentional decisions to not remove myself from media, instead I tried to use Lent to allow God-filled content to permeate my day-to-day media consumption in the true hope that it converts my overall (year long) intake of music, movies and/or online reading consumption. I usually take a social media fast, but didn’t find that I replaced it with proper channels. This was just an attempt to convert the parts of my habits that were fairly engrained and daily routines. Thanks for asking. Ask any questions you may have, hope that helps in anyway.
Oh. For [my wife’s] sake and with the kids. Creative ideas a plenty for Lent. We did the crown of thorns with the toothpick idea. The kids got to take a toothpick out every time they did a good deed. They loved it.

Resource here: http://www.catholicicing.com/lenten-activities-for-children/

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I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for, BUT… One of the things I am working on is following through with what I commit to and making my “yes mean yes and no mean no”. So before I impulsively commit to anything I’m practicing my immediate response to be “let me get back to you after I check my schedule/prays about it/etc …that way I am also allowing room for Jesus to fill my day before I do. As far as prayer goes, I am doing the Marian consecration and ending on the Annunciation which is a little shy of Easter
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Thanks, Tom. I’m a little under the weather. Besides, I don’t really have many words of value. I’m simply going to rend my heart and love like Christ until il it bleeds. I hope 😉 OR I could give up coffee. But I have to function. I’ll probably be better off with a bloody heart than be without Caffeine!!!

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In the past I have invited people to pick a vice and cultivate the opposing virtue for the entirety of Lent. For example:

Vice: Lust
Virtue: Temperance

Prayer: The Rosary. If we meditate on the Life of Christ in our thoughts and imagination then our words and actions will most likely be Christ Centered.

Abstain: No music in the Car during Lent. This can be used as time to talk with God about our time of meditation.

Fast: Fast from tasty food and drink during Lent. If we can deny ourselves the pleasure we get from tasty food then we can more easily deny ourselves the pleasure we get from Lust.

Almsgiving: Give time to Someone or People we get know pleasure from being around. If I don’t like old people then I will schedule a weekly visit with old people at the nursing home or I will call an elderly relative for a half hour conversation. If I don’t get pleasure from being around poor people then I will spend a day at the soup kitchen every week.

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I don’t know if my penances are very creative! No Netflix on Tuesdays and Thursdays so as to better enjoy my books and my house and 10 minutes of lectio divina every night; I find that much more helpful than spiritual reading alone. If either would be helpful, you can post them!

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Mmmmm. Nothing creative coming out of here for quite some time.

Junior high RE director suggested to class that they keep journal and right the names of people who annoy/hurt/offend them. Rather than gossip or complain, penitent must keep silent and pray – for the “offender’s” intentions, not for them to evaporate/apologize/even change their mind.

Journal must be shared with no one but Christ.

Reverse of private: Bo Bonner had Orthodox friend on his “Uncommon Good” radio show. Conversation about the Orthodox being more about communal penance/offerings. Suggested having another person choose YOUR penance for you, in order to help you practice conforming your will to another’s.
*people in my house thought this was a great idea , until they realized they wouldn’t just choose another’s penance…another would choose the penance for them. Mmmm.

Help others succeed.
Practical application:
Perhaps helping remove obstacles and temptation for one another. Forbidden foods kept out of the house. Prayer books kept in a prominent place. No interruptions for a person trying to create prayer habit at specific time of day.
No invitation to gossip, break fast, skip difficult practices ( stations, late night adoration times, chores we hate).

Maybe there’s a shred there you can add to. That’s all I’ve got.

God bless you and yours.
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Tom,

I’m happy to share, but I have to say that there’s nothing too “creative” about my penitential practices. I’m a firm believer in the value of fasting–mostly of the traditional not-eating kind (a penance that I recommend to one and all, but perhaps especially to husbands/fathers), but also of variations on that theme (giving up desserts, not listening to music in the car, giving up recreational internet usage, etc.). The one other aspect that I’ve included in my Lenten discipline at times is to use Lent as a focused inauguration of some practice that I’d like to maintain
after Lent (for example, increasing/modifying prayer or devotional practices)–the zeal for Lenten practices can go a long way to laying the foundation of a new habit.

Sorry I don’t have anything more interesting to offer, but thanks for thinking of me.

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Not so unusual, but during Lent I typically try to spend more time with the elderly.
And other exercises of almsgiving with time rather than money.

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Sorry for the late reply. Was driving earlier. Two particularly memorable Lenten penances come to mind. One year, I gave up hot water. Having spent a couple weeks on a mission trip in Honduras we didn’t have hot water. I underestimated how much colder the water could be in [my home town] in late winter. I remember all my muscles tensing up and barely being able to stand the cold water long enough to rinse shampoo from my hair. I certainly learned how little water is really necessary (turning it off while lathering, etc) and how quickly and shower can be had!
The Lent preceding my proposal to [my wife], I gave up my bed. It was old anyway, so in order to keep me from backing out of the commitment, I took the drastic step of taking the mattress to the street for trash pick-up. Inspired to continue this sacrifice afterward for my bride to be, I didn’t own another bed until we were married. Thank you for keeping my identity anonymous in sharing.

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Realize that I need to be other focused and more generous…so I’ve picked 6 individuals to focus on. One person per week of lent. I will fervently pray for them and probably write them a note to let them know how much I appreciate their existence.
Also, I have been lackadaisical about tithing, and I have enough saved to do this: writing a check for 10% of my 2016 income and joyfully giving it to my parish.
Also…I always give up sugar but THIS year I’m not going to talk about it or complain about it and have a big smile when I say “no thanks” to dessert. Keeping it a little secret.

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Yes, [my daughter] and I are giving up eating out and not buying anything we don’t absolutely need. I am also starting a weekly bible study.

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I gave up watching the golden girls one Lent, huge sacrifice for me, it was my favorite part of the day

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Be happy to help — Not sure how creative but this Lent I am committing to a Wednesday intercessory prayer gathering during at the Cenacle. In the past one of more creative and powerful Lenten experiences— prayed daily (missed a day here and there) about a long held resentment that I had problems letting go of. And did with through the Grace of God. Hope this helps. Good luck with the blog.

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Not listening to anything in the car to create a space to pray, especially for the random drivers around me…
There also is the 40 bags for 40 days challenge (I have never actually signed up or read the “official” rules/thought behind it), it has been communicated to me that the idea is to declutter your home one bag at a time for 40 days to learn to live a more simple life, more detached.

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Taking the bus/public transportation instead of driving my car.

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I gave up makeup for Lent. I actually almost didn’t give up makeup because I realized that the tøp [Twenty One Pilots] concert was during Lent. But then I was praying before a big physics test and I promised that if I got an A I would give up makeup for Lent because it was my biggest sacrifice.

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Dear Tom,

Per your request yesterday, here is the Lenten practice that is the most important and central for me:
During Lent I really try to make an effort to actively cooperate with the movement of the Holy Spirit within me to not only think but especially act in ways that I would ordinarily not. Rather than remaining within my own human logic, I try to create a space for the theo-logic to surprise both myself and those with whom I come into contact: my family, friends, and strangers. In other words, I attempt to step beyond my own self-centered world, get out of my boat, and meet Christ upon the tumulus waters where he awaits me. This could be anything from giving of my time or possessions when it simply does not make sense to do so or saying that which would normally make me feel extremely uncomfortable but is spiritually edifying for others. It’s all about creating room for God’s activity in the my life and the world!

I hope this is what you were looking for!

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Hi!
Here we go
For this 2017 Lent, I plan on abstaining from the use of mirrors. Doing this service to the Lord will make me a more humble Child of God and teach me the importance of humility. I will not be able to apply makeup nor check my appearance every few minutes. There will be a cover over my mirrors and a sticker over my phone’s front camera. I hope that after this experience I will not be so dependent on my appearance in order to APPEAR kind; I hope that my actual KINDNESS will show through without the mirror-obsessed face.

Hope this is good enough 🙂
Let me know if you need something else, and I’ll be happy to do it

[At the bottom of this page are her mirrors. She gave me permission to share them]

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Hey Tom,

Here’s something I hope to do this Lent.

Grand Silence. At a certain hour of the evening—8pm or so—practice a “grand silence”. No music, no TV, no computers or mobile devices (obviously, be attentive to your family). Just time for prayer, reading, silence: listening to the Lord. And keep the silence until you wake the next morning.

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My wife and I give up making love every Lent so that we can focus more on other forms of affection and caring and appreciate more the gift of sexual union and not take it for granted. She especially likes that for 6 weeks she can know that if I want to kiss her or cuddle in bed it’s not a seguy to sex. Especially for me as a man it’s important that I can let her know in a very specific way that I love her and not sex and that I’m willing to forgo sex at any time if need be (like if she ever got sick) and love her just as much (or more) as when we can have sex. I decided to ask her to do this with me eight years ago when one day she asked me if I would be disappointed if for some reason we couldn’t be intimate any more. I said of course I would always love her no matter what and could never be disappointed in her if we didn’t have that in our marriage. But I could tell she was like you’re just saying that to be nice so I decided one Ash Wednesday after asking God during mass what sacrifice He wanted from me. It hit me like a baseball bat: show her it’s true that you love the way you say you do every Lent. She really loved the idea and cried when I said it because it made her feel cherished. Okay thanks Tom for letting me share that. And by the way [my wife] approves of my sharing this with the one qualification that it be anonymous lol. God bless.

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Every Lent I resolve to begin every day by doing first the day’s responsibility I like the least.

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He simply texted me this:

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I’m a chronic insomniac and I struggle with being irritable during the day, which makes me short tempered and quick to criticize. So this Lent I consecrated my insomnia to God and will work on intentionally making both my daily exhaustion and my tongue-restraining a sacrifice offered to Jesus on the cross, especially for all the people who irritate me most during the day or cause me to lay awake at night. Psalm 134:2 is my lenten verse: “bless the Lord through the night.”

 

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