Feast of the Vulnerability of God

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How could I let this Feast pass by silently?

Today is the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This solemnity is always celebrated the Friday after the solemnity of Corpus Christi, which is the final post-Easter “dogmatic feast” that honors the paschal gift of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. On Trinity Sunday we honored the stunning revelation given to us in Jesus: Israel’s “one God” is one in three divine Persons. Like husband and wife, God is one, not solitary. On Corpus Christ we honored a stupefying gift from the Trinity: being permitted to ingest (!) the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, and so receive into our own humanity a full share in divine life. Today, June 23, the church offers us an executive ‘festal’ summary of the whole paschal mystery by presenting in a single image the source and goal of the entire economy of creation and redemption: the unbreakable union of divine and human love forged in the Heart of Jesus.

The divine-human Heart of Jesus reveals both the core identity of God and the core identity of man: oblative (self-giving, agape) and possessive (uniting, eros) love. Love is defined in the Christian tradition as willing the good of the other in accord with the divine will, as well as the uniting of two lovers in the exchange of their mutual self-gift one to the other. The biblical covenant formula contains all of these dimensions of love, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Or as the Song of Songs 2:16 has it, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”

Love is neither wholly other-centered giving nor wholly self-centered receiving, but both, with the center of gravity being found in other-centered giving. This is what Jesus means when He commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” i.e. love your neighbor as “another you” so that in loving neighbor you are loving yourself. And for Jesus, neighbor refers to every human being without exception. I would say this is why He makes forgiveness and enemy-love the sine qua non of love since enemies are those we would most naturally exclude from the ambit of charity that demands universal solidarity. This, Jesus says, is how God deals with humanity, His enemy.

Put another way, love is meant to contain a mutuality. In the absence of this mutuality, you have slavery, with one taking from the other without reciprocating the gift. I know a married couple in which the husband, who is clearly a raging narcissist (of the personality disorder kind), has broken down the personality and spirit of his wife over the years with his voracious appetite for attention, devotion and service. But he responds to her only with bitterness and manipulation. It’s painful beyond words to watch, is the antithesis to authentic love in the divine image and the epitome of the primal curse of sin in Genesis 3:16: “He shall rule over you.”

This is why the God who “loved us first” (1 John 4:19) commands that we love Him. Not because He is needy or a narcissist, but because the very nature of love demands reciprocity. God in fact, metaphysically speaking, does not need us at all. He is purely actualized in every way and cannot become more or less than He is from all eternity. God is self-subsistent, without origin or terminus. But because as Trinity God is love in His essence, an eternal act of Threefold mutuality of giving and receiving, when He creates us out of pure love in His image and likeness, He invites us into this eternal Triune exchange and awaits our return to Him in love. This is not due to a lack in God, but rather the perfection of His nature as love which gives and receives. So St. Maximus the Confessor can make that stunning statement I so often quote:

Those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

God longs for us to accept the gift of His unconditionally offered, freely given love and desires for us to respond in kind by a life obedient to the demands of love (the commandments, love of neighbor) and by a total gift of ourselves back to Him that leads to a divine-human union much like that of marriage and friendship. But note that God acts first, He takes the first step, puts Himself “out there” first, awaiting our free response; or free rejection. There is a profound vulnerability, great risk in God’s act of creating us in love and awaiting our free response of love. In fact, the world vulnerable, from the Latin vulnerare, which means “to wound, hurt or injure,” i.e. that God in creating us risked being wounded by us. Indeed, Isaiah 53 is this.

Here is where the image of the Sacred Heart offers such power as a language of love. The image of the Heart, especially as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in her visions of Jesus, shows the divine-human Heart of Jesus lacerated by the signs of the Passion. In other words, His Sacred Heart betrays the bitter signs of human rejection of His gift offered, sings of the refusal of love’s mutuality. But — what a great mystery! — out from the center of that wounded Heart rises a raging fire, the unquenchable love of God for humanity that burns even and especially in the face of our rejection. The words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary beautifully witness to this:

Behold this Heart, which has loved men so much that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify to them its love; and in return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude.

A number of years ago, on my 8-day Ignatian retreat, my retreat director asked me to sit in front of a statue of the Sacred Heart for an extended period of time.  I did and it was profound. As I never had before, I sensed the purity and innocence of divine love — offered to us, it seemed to me, like a child who opens herself trustingly up to an adult with a special gift she has created, only to discover the adult turns on her, abuses her and utterly rejects her tender gift of love. For whatever reason, the image of that small child’s pained expression in the face of rejection — crushed, bewildered — seemed to be that of Jesus offering His Heart to me. In fact, as I prayed more there was a scene from the movie, The Passion of the Christ, that suddenly filled my heart with overwhelming emotion. The scene during the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas when, right after He joyfully reveals His identity as the Son of Israel’s God, they, His beloved chosen, slap Him, spit on Him, and a tear falls down His cheek. It was crushing to see this image as I prayed before the statue. It matched perfectly that image of the purity and innocent trust of the little girl’s face as her gift was rejected. I must show it here for you to imagine with me:

But as I continued to pray through this, there also seemed to be this difference between God and the little girl — I sensed how God is omnipotent and could in a word annihilate the entire cosmos if He willed. Yet that love, the unfathomable innocence of that love (compassion?) restrains Him as He returns trustingly again and again to us seeking out our loving response to His offer of total self-gift.

Above all in the Holy Eucharist.

That’s today’s Feast, the Feast of God’s unfathomable, tender and merciful love.

Rejoice, respond and reciprocate to Him and to your worst enemy.

Amen.

Alone

Monastery church

Final stretch of road I drove to the monastery

[I will break my break today by posting one from my retreat. BTW, loved the comments:) Will reply next week. Pax]

I’m alone.

A retreat I have awaited for months. A Trappist monastery in eastern Iowa.

The silence. So rich, full of meaning. It is a capacity, a space to receive. More, a power of awareness. Attentiveness to the moment. The ubiquity of sacrament. God is with us, in Him we live and move and have our being. Hearing becomes more refined and what was before mere “background” is now foreground. The small is great, the quiet is loud, the insignificant signs.

I arrived in my car with Louisiana plates, parked under the Norway spruce and made it in time for supper. A silent meal. Simple. Stark.

Vespers. As the monks chanted the psalms a wild chorus of house sparrows chirped outside the church. This blend of strange, unplanned harmonies and rhythms — chant and chirp — made me think of St. Maximus the Confessor’s description of man as “priest of nature.” We give intelligent voice, in praise and thanksgiving to the Creator, on behalf of all creation. I thought of Romans 12:1 and its description of our priestly action as “rational worship” (logikēn latreian). We alone of all creatures on earth can clothe our worship in language and so echo back to God the Word He spoke in the beginning. In us, “let there be” becomes “let it be.” Genesis 1:3 becomes Luke 1:38. Light becomes life. The Word spoken in the beginning is made flesh in the fullness of time.

I also thought of the preface to the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer (in the Mass):

And so, in your presence are countless hosts of Angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy…

If we are thus attentive throughout our days of work and rest, all that we hear, see, touch, taste and smell is brought into the temple of our bodies and readied as material for the Great Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered, co-mingled with the bread, wine and alms to be lifted aloft to the Creator. Readied for Consecration by our daily prayer, by our daily acts of virtue, by our daily repentance. By our “prayers, works, joys and sufferings.” The world that I take in every day has the potential to be re-created, redeemed within me precisely because I am a dwelling place of God, a locus of sacrificial offering, a nexus of eternity and time ambling about on this tiny plot of land floating in a vast universe. In us, when we live life thus, God casts fire into all things. In us the cosmos becomes one great burning bush afire with divine love, co-extensive with the Risen Body of Jesus.

“Full, conscious and active participation” in liturgy is the labor of logikēn latreianan action of our common priesthood that stitches together heaven and earth in Christ in each moment we live the act of bodily offering. This participation at Mass means not primarily that we join in the singing, movements and responses of the Mass (though it is that), but that we fully engage the priesthood of Jesus that we are at every moment of our lives, bringing it to perfection in the Holy Mass.

I went to bed last night with my screened window and curtain open. No car sounds, no outdoor lighting. Just stars, crickets, a catbird at sunset, a lonely nighthawk at 3:15 a.m. when I awoke for Vigils, a steady breeze from the northwest that whispered through the mesh of the screen. I asked St. Elijah to pray for me to listen to the Voice.

And I could smell the white pine sap. They must have pruned.

I rose for Vigils at 3:15 a.m. Dark. Quiet split the night. One spotlight shone down from the high ceiling above the lectern. And the flame of the sanctuary lamp flickered. No organ, just human voices. And that nighthawk. Psalms were a cappella, recto tono. Echoing softly in the stone church. Slight dissonances in their voices drew me in. An aging community of men, and many of the monks are bent over, using a cane or walker. If I were called to be a monk, I would be a Trappist. How many thousands of times these men have entered the Abbey church before dawn to sanctify the night with the divine Word? The church, unadorned, rough, real, breathed their prayer in and out.

Or so it seemed.

The Guest Master told me today the architect back in the 1800’s who inspired this Abbey’s neo-Gothic architecture once said, “The severity of Christian architecture is opposed to all deception. We should never make a building erected to God appear better than it is by artificial means. It is better to do a little substantially and consistently with the truth, than to produce a great but fictitious effect.” That’s it! That’s why I love Trappist monasteries as my place of retreat from the world, because my retreat is not from, but into reality. It’s why I leave every retreat with them more ready for life in the world. A retreat is poor, artificial, fictitious, un-truthful when it makes you dread returning to life. When I end my days at these retreats I feel sent. I come fleeing but return running.

So many reasons this space inspires this in me. But today what struck me was this. These men, they are poor, live so simply, unpretentiously in their manner of living. There is no ego-fest allowed, no cult of personality. Me is always inverted to We. A Guest Master several years ago told me that those few Trappists who may have become well-known outside the monastery for their work, like Merton or Pennington, in the monastery wear the same habit, chant the same psalms, obey the same rule, engage in the same labor as all others. Monastic life levels for the sake of charity, unity, the common good. Yet when I go to confession to a monk, the color of the personalty is rich, as is the depth and profundity of what I receive! 30 years of going to Trappist monasteries around the country, I have found more healing balm here than anywhere else as they school me each retreat in the self-renunciation of love — the supreme recipe for healing.

All of this is a marvelous critique of portions of our American ecclesial culture.

A time ago, the Guest Master shared with me at my request his vocation story. Remarkable. This point he made caught me: “When I entered here years ago, I was filled with consolations. On a sustained God-high. It was all so wonderful and necessary to secure my vocation. But the day I professed my solemn vows — the day — it all vanished. The Abbot, so wise, said to me: ‘God has removed those consolations from you so that those who come here weary from the world might find refreshment. This is the heart of our monastic vocation, to live Philippians 2:5-11. Christ emptied Himself to fill us, He calls us to empty ourselves to fill others.’ Once I saw this, I was grateful to know this was my vocation. It was easy to bear.”

The Guest Master then said to me, “Your being a husband and a father is the same. The same exchange.”

!

Today’s readings at Mass, amazingly, contained this line from 2 Cor. 8:9:

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.

I promise

ashtonlamont.uk.com

My oldest daughter Maria introduced me to the band Radiohead two years ago with her Mashley cover of No Surprises. Recently, she and Ashley went to their concert in New Orleans. Loved them. I’ve not listened to much of their music, but all I have heard I have liked.

Radiohead re-released a 20 year old song about a week or so ago. It’s called, I Promise. Eerie and haunting. According to a number of articles I read, the lyrics consider the dis-ease of disconnection and isolation that increasingly dominates our hyper-mobile and hyper-technological society. The surrealist music video reminds me of Eleanor Rigby — “all the lonely people.” Throughout the song, the thread that binds together a seemingly aimless wandering of angst is the unchanging refrain, “I promise.”

As I listened to it throughout the week, I thought quite a bit about promises.

Promises anchor us in the storm, keep us from being set adrift, losing our inner compass and stability. Baptismal promises, marital promises, ordination promises, professional promises. Promises manifest and confirm your character, forge and focus your deepest commitments. My grandfather wrote me once, “Tommy, always be a man of your word. If you don’t have your word, you’ve nothing to offer. Being true to your word in the face of resistance is the highest act of courage. Without this greatness is impossible. Words kept channel swift and powerful waters into a deep river that cuts rock, broken words diffuse into a shallow and murky swamp that covers rock with mud.” The Scriptures are filled with promises offered, promises kept and promises broken. God is above all true to His promises, true to His Name, a God of His Word — “Faithful and True” (Rev. 19:11).

The word promise comes from the Latin pro- “before” and mittere “to release, let go; send, throw.” So, in a sense, it means to “throw yourself” into the future. A future uncertain, indefinite, unknown. All promises are future oriented, throw caution to the wind in a reckless act of hope. Hope in God alone makes possible absolute and unconditional promises, as the martyrs testify eloquently. “Love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev. 12:11).

Last October on our 21st wedding anniversary, Patti and I spent an evening on the balcony of our hotel room sipping Chianti and remembering many of the big events in our marriage and family life. Patti said, “Can you imagine if we knew all that the words “I promise to be…’ implied? Oh my gosh. All that’s happened since that day? I guess that’s why the promises include ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health all the days of my life.’ Catch all. So you really do know you’re in for a lot!” I said, “I guess that’s also why they say that the eighth sacrament is ignorance! If we knew up front all that the other seven sacraments commit us to, we’d probably run! When you’re Catholic, you can’t ever say ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ If it’s a sacrament, it’s the cross, and so you did.”

Then she sang a line from Covenant Hymn (which she also sang at our wedding):

Whatever you dream, I am with you, when stars call your name in the night. Though shadows and mist cloud the future, together we bear there a light. Like Abram and Sarah we stand, with only a promise in hand. But lead where you dream: I will follow. To dream with you is my delight.

In the play A Man for All Seasons, when St. Thomas More’s daughter Margaret was trying to convince him to dissemble and take the Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, he said to her: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” St. Thomas knew baptismal promises bound Him unconditionally to God’s Kingdom, and that these were the ground of every other promise. He said just before he was beheaded, “I am the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”

When our first child was born, an “old salt” friend who had three sons of his own told me to never make a promise to my children that I couldn’t keep. Small or great. And if you break a promise, he said, make amends and do penance for them to see you take them dead seriously. Penance proportionate to the gravity of the promise. He said, “They need to get from you that they can count on you. Everything else in your life can fall apart, you can lose your job or even, God forbid, your health. Things won’t always go your way. But if you promise them you will always do your best, trust God, love Patti in the worst conditions and put them first over yourself, and then do it, they will see everything is going to be okay. Your promises are your children’s safe zone. Die before you break them.”

[Verse 1]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise

[Verse 2]
I don’t wish that I’m spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Verse 3]
I won’t run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotting deck, I promise

[Outro]
I won’t run away no more, I promise

Walter Inglis Anderson

This is my last post written while on last week’s vacation. Sigh. I so enjoyed the space in my life to write. But as I am returning to piles and projects at work, I will likely be sporadic for a while until I can regain my balance.

These are thoughts I wrote after my daughters and I went to the Walter Inglis Anderson Art Museum in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Anderson was an early-mid 20th century artist, naturalist, writer and eccentric. I fell in love with his work. I wrote this journal entry late Thursday night the day we went to the museum. Excuse me for its exclusive self-exploratory focus…

+ + +

“Nature does not like to be anticipated, but loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time, the true fountain of youth.” —  Walter Inglis Anderson

My earliest happy childhood memories — maybe 3 or 4 years old — are outdoors. I remember wishing I could live there always, and when my brothers let me stay in their tent out back I thought that might be the way I would live my life. Our backyard in Rhode Island, for me, was a magical wonderland. When I would wake up in the morning, I would bolt outside. And after the sun went down I would sit out and listen to the chorus of the night. I spent hours standing by the pink azaleas in the Spring, watching with rapt attention as bumblebees and honeybees dove deep into each flower foraging for nectar. I can still hear their frantic buzzing and smell the sweet fragrances.

My father tells me I would hover over a black ant mound along the back wall of our house for very long periods of time, absolutely motionless, fascinated by the ants’ tireless excavation project. I remember being stunned at seeing my first monarch butterfly caterpillar brought to me by my next door neighbor, Mark. He and I would play stick ball or catch in the street and then hunt for insects. And then there was that stag beetle that ended up on my shirt, or the praying mantis egg case I brought into school from recess and hid in my desk (and what trouble I got in when they all hatched one day!). When we moved to Massachusetts, our new home was next to a large stretch of woods, open meadows, a stream and a pond. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. After school and sports, and in the summers, I would slip outside and disappear for hours. Ride my bike to Connecticut where it was pretty much all forest. I would wake up before sunrise to catch the morning avian chorus and return home late at night only after I had donated a sufficient quantity of blood to the mosquitoes while lying supine on the meadow adjacent our property taking in the horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

And then there were those fruit bats I would feed with pokeberries. Dang that sonar works well!

I learned carpentry from a neighbor so I could build bird houses and a tree house for myself in the back woods. I spent hours reading books about birds, snakes, insects, trees, pond life, weather. I eventually became so interested in weather that it took me to Florida State University to study meteorology. My dad co-owned a boat with a friend of our family, and we would spend weeks on it every summer out in Narragansett Bay and out to Block Island. Infinite treasures! As soon as we would arrive at our boat Friday evening, I would abscond our dinghy and disappear to explore Wickford Cove; or anywhere we ended up anchored. I would usually fish for Porgy and then use them later to catch bluefish when we were able to troll in the deeper water. Oh, and the sound of halyards slapping the sailboat masts in the face of an impeding storm. Be still my heart. Their chiming, I would have argued, surpassed the beauty any angelic choir could muster.

For me, getting lost in nature, far from asphalt and concrete, was like finding my way out into a most sacred cathedral. Into the spacious land of Canaan. And communing with nature for me was no abstraction. I was stung and bit and cut and scraped and bruised hundreds and hundreds of times, and I considered them all badges of honor that spoke of my committed intimacy with that wild world. I felt alive. Though I would not have thought of it this way then, the world was for me a great sacrament of mystery and wonder where — more than anywhere — I encountered God. The only other place I felt the sacred with a similar intensity was at the Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Which is why I have made my retreat every year since 1987 at a Trappist Monastery — with only two exceptions when I could not make it. This year I will drive to Iowa to stay at New Melleray Monastery. I find their poverty and simplicity wrap me in the beauty and roughness of the earth and allow me to join (especially at 3:00 a.m. Vigils!) the endless chorus of praise that is creation. Laudato Si!

So Anderson’s art today shook me to the core. His life was a driven quest to overcome modernity’s alienation from Nature and permit himself to become the natural world’s iconographer. I felt my alienation acutely, like a wound that had been hidden by a band-aid but was freshly ripped off and exposed. When I read his handwritten transcription of a portion of Psalm 104, which he wrote at night camped out on Horn Island, I fell into near ecstasy:

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

I could see in this moment, as I prayed with him his psalm, how much of who I am remains there, outdoors. There my soul expands, my heart swells, my senses awaken, my mind is clear, my imagination becomes a palette on which creation splatters its infinitely diverse colors. There is the natural temple for my priesthood.

 

I am grateful. And I am absolutely certain that the new creation is teeming with all of this, stripped only of its sacramental veil in order to reveal in full splendor the glory that, though hidden, first seduced me so long ago. When I was very small. I hope to become small again one day. In hope I am saved. Amen.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” — 1 Cor 6:19

wikiart.org

Happy Pentecost! A special shout-out to Thom and Heather Jordan on this nearly 20-year anniversary of their Profession of Faith, Confirmation and First Communion, from their sponsors who love them and think they and their family all rock. Isn’t it awesome that our Catholic Church is spread over so much territory? Plenty of breathing room for charity to grow.

Okay…

Today the Paschal Mystery comes to a wrap as the power of the dead and risen Jesus falls down from the Father and explodes in Jerusalem to make the whole cosmos into a City of God.

The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in the Church. He keeps the Church going, keeps the Church moving forward. More and more, beyond the limits, onward. The Holy Spirit with His gifts guides the Church. You cannot understand the Church of Jesus without this Paraclete, whom the Lord sends us for this very reason. And He makes unthinkable possible, the unimaginable imaginable! To use a word of St. John XXIII: it is the Holy Spirit that updates [aggiornamento] the Church: Really, he really updates it and keeps it going. And we Christians must ask the Lord for the grace of docility to the Holy Spirit. Docility in this Spirit, who speaks to us in our heart, who speaks to us in all of life’s circumstances, who speaks to us in the Church’s life, in Christian communities, who is always speaking to us.” — Pope Francis

Back in 1987 I went through a “Life in the Spirit” seminar and was prayed over for an unleashing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was powerful for me at what was really the beginning of my faith journey. I did not experience the gift of tongues or words of knowledge or other charismatic gifts often hailed by both Pentecostals and Catholics in the Charismatic Renewal as premier signs of “baptism in the Spirit.”  What I did experience, though, was a very intense and sustained awareness of what is often called the “indwelling” of the Spirit (cf 1 Cor. 6:19). In fact, I remember when one of the members of the prayer group I had joined quoted St. Augustine, I thought to myself, “That’s exactly  it!” He told me Augustine said, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” [Actually what Augustine really said is even more lovely and poetic in Latin and English: Interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, “Higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”]

God is more interior, “closer” to my innermost self precisely because He communicates to my “self” existence at every second. God is “beneath me,” the “ground of my being,” as the Rhineland theologians of the 15th century loved to say. But God is also insanely close to us because He desires to unite Him-self with our-self. Not united at the superficial levels of our consciousness, but at the source, the core, the origin of who “I” am, the personal spring from which my deepest identity emerges. In other words, God wishes to get dangerously close to my heart, to what makes me who I am as an absolutely unique individual person; to the place where I am stripped of all pretense and deception and empty show and defense mechanisms. There, in that most intimate and supremely vulnerable space within me, where I am “naked,” God wishes to gain entry to become one with me, opening His Heart and Person just as unreservedly to me as He asks me to open to Him.

Whoa.

After that personal experience of the Spirit’s indwelling, of a heightened awareness of my body being His temple, I suddenly became more aware of my words and actions as being done in the presence of God. I developed what I might call an acute case of “holy fear of the Lord,” i.e. a tremendous sense of reverence, awe, fear of offending God who dwelt within. Fear of “grieving the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). That holy fear has never left me in 30 years. In fact, my resolution to give up cussing permanently after my initial conversion experience in 1987 was sealed by this new awareness. I had developed a very foul mouth when I was 13 or so, but after my conversion experience I instinctively knew I had to stop though no one had asked me to.

While I am making this point, let me share a very personal grace I received from the Spirit in that regard six years ago. As I have a bad memory these days, so I cannot recall if I have ever shared it here.

Although I had given up cussing in 1987, and was almost 100% effective in keeping my commitment in the subsequent years, inside of me there was a sewer of language that assailed me night and day. All of the memories and habits of a childhood surrounded by cursing, and years of practicing it with abandon, remained in me. It was especially bad when I would pray. But, at the encouragement of my spiritual director, I had long ago accepted it as a lifelong penance for my sins and the sins of others, and I tried to make the best of it.

In 2011 I went to Confession to a priest who was, by chance, also an exorcist. I had never met him before this. I never mentioned to him my inner struggle with vulgarity, but he himself brought it up — which was a bit disconcerting. Just after absolution he put a crucifix on my head and prayed something like this: “Lord, you know your son here has long struggled with the spirit of blasphemy. And he has been faithful. And now you wish to free him from this so he can worship you in purity of mind and heart.” Later that day, I immediately thought of Exodus 7:16.

It was absolutely astonishing, and I could never explain to anyone what happened with adequate clarity. But I can say that from that moment on, till this day, I have never again been assailed in my mind by vulgarity. While I can call to mind curse words at will, they never present themselves to me. I knew immediately, as soon as he finished praying, that it was gone. I told him so, and he said: “The Lord, the Spirit of freedom, wanted you to first struggle all those years to make you ready to receive this grace. Otherwise it would not be your own, be part of you.” He added, “You know that vulgar and blasphemous words, especially the f-word, are the lingua franca of the demons in an exorcism. Just think of the one time you hear of a disciple using curses — St Peter denying Jesus [Matt. 26:74]. A good sign that Christians should avoid them. A salty word is fine to spice things up now and again, but perverse and blasphemous language that offends God and human dignity are not. We live in a very vulgar culture, which is a symptom of spiritual decay. God wishes Christians to be signs of contradiction that remind the world that we will be judged one day by the way we used the gift of language God gave us to resemble His Word. Go in peace, son.”

O Spirit of Freedom, Spirit who makes of my body your temple, come and abide with me forever. Give me the mind and heart of Jesus and make His prayer my own: “Abba! Father!” Amen.

Distracted by Trivia

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“What Aldous Huxley [in Brave New World] teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a voyeuristic vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.” ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (c. 1985)

Last week my iPhone shattered. In an event that appeared to be a sign of providentially ironic divine humor, it happened on the first day of my vacation when I found myself cheating on a commitment I had made not to use my phone for anything other than calling and texting family, and then only in necessity. Literally, as I was sending pictures to someone not in my family (but, come on, it was a funny picture!) my phone fell out of my hands and the screen completely shattered and the screen displayed triple images. After a moment of frustration, I belly laughed for at least a minute. I have been without it since. Glorious.

So all this got me thinking throughout the week. Here’s what I scribbled in my journal. No lightning bolt insights, just my summary of a common conversation.

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Our culture, which I myself fully inhabit and struggle with, suffers from a deep and tragic addiction to technological superficiality, to being incessantly entertained and stimulated, constantly consuming and not communing with existence. Our attention is short, shallow and fragmented, and so our threshold of patience grows short. We have no more safe zones insulated from the world of endless noise and chatter; or in the words of William James, from the world of “the great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In such a culture things like prayer and inner silence erode, as well as the ability to sit and be with others. To listen closely or to suffer through the human necessity of feeling loneliness or boredom. All of which are part of prayer, part of love.

We stay in touch with everyone at the expense of the few who need and demand our touch the most. Precious time is devoured by trivialities. Watching the endless string of recommended videos on YouTube, we get sucked into a vortex. But we justify it. While on an iPhone we can swipe away or x-out things that fail to give us pleasure or attract our interest, but life is not that way. However, it too easily becomes that way. We check and use our phones compulsively, not freely. When we get a pause, a slack, a lull, a still moment in our day — or a dead silence at night — we feel the addict’s itch to reach for our phone. Dull the dull, anesthetize the pain and feed the screaming appetites we have conjured unwittingly. Since when did these things cross over from wants to needs?

We ceaselessly take pictures of everything to ‘capture the moment,’ to post for others, to get likes, but fail to encounter real life in real time without concern for others’ approval or interest. Reality inverts, as the virtual becomes real and the real becomes virtual. We live life away from home all the time, every conversation we have in person is intruded on by a third party. Life itself becomes tired and insipid, while life through the screen becomes our litmus of interest, our new heroine.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). We Christians must enact a Pentecostal revolt against this zombie culture, this addict’s world. We must become masters of our technologies and not its slaves. Claim back our power of attention, which is our power to love others with attentiveness. We must cultivate an asceticism that ensures our freedom, that constantly critiques our use of social media, iPhones, gaming, all entertainment, and places all of it in service to virtue, to the ability to be present to the present moment, present to the raw, real, uncontrollable, sometimes unpleasant, boring and tedious aspects of life right in front of us — by divine design. We must radically and regularly confess our techno-abuses in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to access its liberating graces. We must show the world what it means to “put out into the deep,” not live as surface-skimming Christian dilettantes. We must be free — slaves to nothing or no one. We must flee escapism. I’ll end with Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words about the spiritual life that apply so powerfully to this topic:

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 in every present moment that comes our way, welcome or unwelcome?

“You are not the Messiah” — my wife

“Discern and accept one’s limited role in the Body of Christ, and fulfill it.” — Germain Grisez

My spiritual director back in the late 1980’s said something to me that I have never forgotten and have never ceased to find applicable: “90% of discerning God’s will is figuring out what you’re not supposed to be doing.” In other words, life presents unlimited options for doing good. The needs out there are limitless, but you are limited. He also added this tagline to his proverb, “It is always better to do a few things well than many things poorly. Remember, Tom, the devil tempts the evil-willed with evil and the good-willed with good. Good that God never asked them to do. He plays on things like your pride, your good will, your insecurity, your desire to please people. If he [the devil] can get you to spread yourself too thin, distracted from what you are supposed to be about, his work is done. He can just sit back and watch you fizzle out.” He told me another time that people who over-commit like this frequently judge others who don’t live in a frenzy like them and become resentful of those who live with a good balance. Every Lent my director would make me do an inventory, an audit of my commitments, and would review them with me to make certain that my core commitments were being well-served by my secondary commitments. If not, time for pruning.

My boss in Des Moines, Fr. Polich, was having lunch with me one day and reviewing the various projects I was taking on. As I shared with him all of the requests I was receiving to offer collaborative assistance, talks, workshops, retreats, etc.. He said in his coy manner: “Hmm, Tom, well very good. Very impressive. But you know, Tom, good fences make for good neighbors. You need to set your fences in place to protect the property you’ve been given here at the Center. Work in those limits, okay? I’m glad for your zeal and generosity. Let’s just choose the most needful projects that match most closely the mission of the Center and do a good job with those first. Then we’ll see later where we should go next. The turtle wins the race. We want you around with us for a long time.”

In 2012 my retreat director on an 8-day Ignatian retreat helped me to understand very clearly, with very personal applications (!), how I must be able to be brutally honest with my past and admit when I see I made a poor decision in discerning God’s will and learn from that poor decision. And in the silence of those 8 days lots of clarity on past poor decisions became apparent. He said,

You can’t simply say, ‘Well, it must have been God’s will because that’s the way it happened. It’s all God’s perfect plan.’ If you do that, you won’t be able to learn from your mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future. Although all things that happen are never outside of God’s providential will, not all things that happen are what God willed to happen. Obviously! God permits things to happen that are not what He willed to be.

You have to be willing to set aside your pride and fear and give God permission to correct you, to lay bear your guilt and failures. Humble yourself and trust in His mercy enough to not fall apart every time you see you screwed up. Get over yourself, get up and get on with it. Humility means being able to look squarely at all your life’s screw ups, admit them, learn from them, correct them for the future and give them to God as a precious offering that He very tenderly takes and reworks into something beautiful. [He asked me for my penance to bring all of those poor decisions I had come to recognize to Mass that day and offer them up to God. Wow]

That’s the logic of the Cross, the place where God reworks all of our screw-ups and raises good out of them. If you really embrace the Cross your failures will never cause you anxiety, only humility and gratitude. Only if you give Him your failures humbly, though, with no taint of justifying or defense. Then the last bad note of your life’s symphony can become the keynote of a new movement of beauty that God will play with you. And then you’ll notice that you will become more and more merciful with others’ screw-ups because you have tasted, for real, God’s mercy and you want to respond to them the way God responded to you.

Once in Confession, the priest said to me after I had unloaded my trash: “Remember, you only get one chance at this [referring to raising my children]. You need to know that God knows you need to provide for your family and have commitments to that. But everything else that diverts your attention from your wife and children being #1 must go. They need you now. Lots of good you can do for others, wonderful. They aren’t your children. Always put first things first, and the rest will follow. St. Augustine says, ‘Love God and do what you will.’ But I’ll change it up and say, ‘Love your family then do what you will.'”

Fr. Tom Hopko, speaking of the essential commitment to daily prayer, said: “If you don’t believe in the Devil, just commit yourself to spending time every day in prayer and watch all hell break loose. He’d rather you do anything else than pray. Distractions in prayer, assaults on your time for prayer, really brilliant rationales for skipping prayer or using your prayer time for other very worthy things. He comes to us as an Angel of Light. Satan would rather you do a thousand good deeds without prayer than one good deed joined to prayer. Why? Because he knows prayer fills all of your work with the power of God, and that’s the only thing he fears. So if he tempts you to cut your prayer time even 5 minutes earlier than you planned, add 5 minutes more than you planned.”

Last Fall as I was sharing with my wife my exhaustion and frustrations with all of my responsibilities and commitments — kvetching, as they say in Yiddish. After she listened, she prefaced her response to my complaining, as she always does, with, “Do you mind if I tell you what I think?” I said, as I always do, “Of course not! Just be gentle.”  She went on to offer me a very tough and keen analysis of those areas of burden she knew very well were my own fault and pried me from any semblance of “woe is me” victim-mode. It hurt so good. It led to some major decisions that have now played out for the better. At the end of the conversation, she summed it all up marvelously: “Just remember, honey, you aren’t the Messiah.”

Well, that just about sums it all up.