The debt of gratitude

The icon is a work of tradition. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers stand behind each loaf of homemade bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist, but the fruit of many generations of believers uniting us to the witnesses of the Resurrection. — Jim Forest

When I took a class on the Jewish Talmud back in 1989 my professor, who was an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, described the painstaking work of scribes who had faithfully transmitted the Scriptures before the invention of the printing press. He held up a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and said, “whenever we read Tanakh we have a duty to begin with hakarat hatov, to ‘recognize the goodness’ of those countless people whose toil brought us these sacred texts. As we begin the study of Torah blessing Hashem [the Name of God], we must also bless those devout scribes who preserved the Law with great love and devotion.”

The class made such an impact on me that since then I have made it a habit to cultivate a grateful awareness of the toil that stands behind everything around me, including the Sacred Scriptures. Doing that has made me consistently aware of the profound debt of gratitude I owe to an unseen God and to a mostly unseen community of humanity, stretching back millennia.

Growing up, there was a woman I knew and loved named Muriel Vassett. She and her husband were close to my parents and she was like a second mother to me. She was a saintly woman, who taught in Catholic schools for years and refused to accept a salary (she said her husband made enough so she donated her salary to pay other teachers a higher wage). When I was in college, and very far from the practice of my faith, she grew very ill and nearly died of congestive heart failure. She suffered terribly. Then she had a (literally) miraculous recovery, and when I went to visit her after she had returned to full health she told me something that left me speechless. About six months before flying out to see her, I had experienced a completely unexpected and radically life-changing encounter with Christ. As we sat together, I shared with her the story of my newfound faith and she shared with me the story of her miraculous healing. Then she told me, “Tommy, I offered my pain up for you to become the man God wanted you to be. And God received my offering. Be worthy.”

Thirty years later, I still feel intensely the same debt of gratitude to her for the man I am. She could have written 1 Cor. 4:7 and Galatians 4:19 to me:

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

My little children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!

Blessed are you, Muriel, for handing on faith to me by offering to God your body as a living sacrifice, for me and for many. Blessed are you, mom and dad, for giving me life. Blessed are you, countless unseen laborers in the world who bring me good at every moment. Only in Paradise — please God I enter — will I understand the beauty of this vast web of life and be able to give fitting thanks to the God who ceaselessly labors to bind humanity together as one.

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. — John 17:21-24

“A (lay) Woman clothed with the sun” — Revelation 12:1

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Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own, in her, to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all. Or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her rising now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. — St. Gregory Palamas

Today the Church celebrates the “summer Pascha,” the August Easter, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven. This is a day of great joy for us, as it celebrates the fulfillment of all human longing in immortal glory. If we grasp this point, and believe that in Holy Mass God smashes the glassy pane of time to reach us, our language of “holy day of obligation” to describe our motive for Mass attendance transitions from blind obedience to joyful duty. The Obliged blurt out, “How can I keep from singing?”

I must interject…

All that we say of the Virgin Mary we say of the Church, since she is the God-etched icon of the Church in all her perfection. Though Mary was given an absolutely singular vocation to give flesh to God, we the baptized are given a share in all that she was and is. She is spes nostra, “our hope.”

So much to say! Let me share a few scattered musings I wrote in my journal over the weekend praying on this Feast Day. These thoughts reiterate my core theological interests that I have shared here again and again.

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The Virgin Mary, who is the highest honor of our race, is a laywoman. She embodies the fullness of the baptismal vocation and mission given to the lay faithful. She was a daughter of Israel, a small town girl, a wife, a mother, a teacher and disciple of her Son.

Her identity is wholly defined by her baptism, though her baptism was utterly unique. Her immaculate conception in the womb of St. Anne was a proto- and prevenient baptism, which not only preserved her from sin but regenerated her as the New Eve. In this baptized conception, Mary was saved by the death and resurrection of her Son not yet conceived in her womb. Think on that for a moment. God, who created time, revealed in Christ the capacity of time to accommodate itself to God’s eternal saving plan in which Christ is its Alpha and Omega. As the Catechism says:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (#491).

Mary was redeemed by God her Savior in a way unlike the rest of us. She was saved to the roots of her being (sanatio in radice), freed from every effect of sin, so she could give birth to the all-holy God with full freedom and be a sign of hope to humanity that radical redemption is our calling and destiny. Like her Son (Heb. 4:15), she suffered the buffets of sin, while preserving her innocence, even sharing in Christ’s death mystically at the foot of the Cross and physically at the end of her life, before being raised into bodily glory.

As with us, her baptism conferred on her a share in the offices of priest, prophet and queen.

As priest, she consecrated the world to God by her soulful ‘Yes’ that permitted God to enter and penetrate into the heart of creation to consecrate the world to God (John 17:19). In her, the Father united all things to Himself through His and her Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The devotional tradition of consecrating oneself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is a magnificent means of joining our baptismal priesthood to hers, and sharing in her prototypical ‘Yes’ to God. The world, which emerges as freshly created at every new moment in history, awaits our yeses in order to share in the supreme act of consecration one-for-all effected by Jesus in Mary. Each Yes we pronounce allows the coming of our rescuing-God, who longs to make all things new. Like her Son (Heb. 7:25), Mary spends her heaven doing good on earth by ceaselessly interceding for our pilgrim Church marching through this valley of tears.

As prophet, she proclaims and enfleshes the Word of God by her life. Simply by who she is, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and magnifies God her Savior. She alone bears the Word of God in its totality, and so she “who pondered these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19) is the absolute summation and embodiment of the living Tradition. Therefore, she alone is fully catholic, possessing a universal vocation of prophetic witness to all humanity, showing us what it means to be wholly defined by the eternal Word of the Father. As Ark of the New Covenant, she bears within herself “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which is also the vocation of the entire Church. Because Mary is a fully catholic human person, she is our universal Mother.

As queen, she has been commissioned to cooperate with Christ the King in His redemptive governance of all creation, leading all into the new creation. She bears the whole Church’s Christ-given mission to wage “paschal combat” against the powers of darkness. She whose “let it be done” echoed God’s “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3; Luke 1:38), who is Queen of Light, has been given authority over the Prince of Darkness, crushing him with her beautiful feet that still hasten to carry the Gospel of God, Jesus Christ, to all she is sent to greet (Gen. 3:15; Is. 52:7; Luke 1:39-45).

I remember in my Mariology (theology of Mary) class in grad school my professor said, after discussing the “singular privileges” of Mary,

In Judaism, the idea of being chosen does not mean being “special” or “better than” the un-chosen, but it means to be invited to shoulder a mission for the rest of humanity. The gift of being chosen by God always means to be chosen to serve as God’s instrument to the rest, and ‘To whom much is given much will be expected’ (Luke 12:48). Every one of Mary’s singular privileges — Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, Assumption — empower her to Mother each of you, in union with Christ, our Father-forever (Isaiah 9:5), in becoming worthy sons and daughters of God. And as we see New Eve, New Adam becoming such on Golgotha (John 19:26-27), we also remember that all privileges require great sacrifice. This is lex caritas, “the law of love.”

In her assumed, risen and glorified body, Mary gives witness not only to our future bodily resurrection, but also to the hope of the entire material world of being lifted up by us into the new creation. In Mary, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium — along with the human culture she inhabited and that inhabited her — were transfigured in the new creation. In other words, the “bread and wine” of her life was taken up into eternity and transubstantiated (1 Cor. 15:52). By her — and our — free consent to concelebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven and earth, we confer on all of creation the hope of glory (Rom. 8:18-30). On today’s gloriously joyful Feast, Mary stands as the perfect fulfillment of those extraordinary words of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #39):

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father the kingdom.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Let me conclude with the prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:

O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.

Amen.

“Already you knew my soul” — Psalm 139:14

“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.” ― George MacDonald

The two mysteries of faith that lead me into existential dizziness whenever I begin to reflect on them are (1) God has no origin, beginning or source, other than Himself [can’t think on this longer than a minute or so without brain shut-down], and (2) when my spiritual soul came into existence at the moment of conception, ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” God thought specifically of me in that creative act of His infinite mind. As a priest once said to me, as he was trying to encourage me in the face of deep despondency to return to a primal sense of gratitude for simply existing, “When you were conceived, God said ‘Let there be Tom.’ And in you a whole new universe came to be that will never cease to be. Think of the pinpoint intentionality of that act of love. Bathe in it.”

In fact, when I was 8 or 9 years old I recall vividly having a “freak out” moment every time I thought about the fact that I was me, Tom, that I had a completely unique vantage that was me, and wondered what that even meant. Still can’t think on that one for long.

I always quote Pope Benedict to this effect, “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” If we owned that truth, it would mark a revolution. 15th century German Dominican, Meister Eckhart, wrote profoundly about a form of mysticism that was a journey into the mind of God, back into the original and eternal thought of God out of which I emerged. Of course, this is really nothing more than the essence of vocational discernment: “Who am I in you, O God?” Once we know who we are, we then know who we should be.

Faint.

I once was invited to attend a Foster Parent Conference in Tallahassee years ago, and heard this amazing African American woman, somewhere in her 70’s, speak about the decades of service she and her husband had offered to orphaned children in Florida. She was Baptist and very vocal about her faith. She told us so many powerful stories, but I remember especially a line she spoke to all parents in the audience. She said,

You see, one thing we see again and again with these foster children is that they feel like a burden, unwanted. Many of them have heard, “I wish you were never born!” And they act out. But God has given you parents a great task! Do you hear me? [All: Yes!] I need you to see what I see, that He’s entrusted you with a most solemn responsibility. Greater than any other one in the whole of creation. He wants you to be Him for His children. Yes, I said His children, only on loan to you, stewards of His greatest treasures.

So you have to ask God every day when you wake up and before you go to sleep, “Father, what’s your dream for this baby? Who did you make him, make her to be? What message are they to bring the world that no one else ever could?” Let them know they are so special, unique, unlike anyone else that every lived or will live. But that’s not enough! Make them know well that with this gift comes great, great responsibility. Hold them accountable, challenge them, inspire them to be God’s dream for them. Help them discover God’s dream and run with it.

But first, you have to believe it about yourself or you’ll just pass along the hurt.

A harsh and dreadful thing

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[I had planned to skip today, but when I was awakened this morning early this post was insistently knocking]

I was speaking with a friend the end of last week about family dysfunction and the depth of pain it can engender. She said, “It’s easy to feed the poor and walk away from them; or to do good for strangers and feel good about it as you go home for the evening; but when it’s your messed-up family you have to deal with, well, there’s no getting away. You can talk about love, but when you have to do it with people permanently connected to you who despise you, it’s really hard.” Then she quoted this line from Dostoevsky I’d never heard, but now will never forget — “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

After she left, I sat in silence for a while just processing. She’s the kind of person whose words, because they are so sincere, just cut to the heart.

I’ve often quoted Thoreau’s line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” A religious order priest I knew in south Florida introduced me to it when he was telling me about his priestly work in what Pope Francis now calls the “ministry to the margins.”  This priest worked in tandem with several drug rehab facilities to help the families of recovering addicts find support and a way forward. He told me that among the families he dealt with were middle class to upper middle class families who, to outsiders, seemed to be happy, ideal, functional families. They had become masters of illusion. But what the addiction crisis had done is force them to drop the facade and face the depth of dysfunction and pain. “In fact,” he said (and I will never forget this),

if I spend any time in compassionate listening with anyone — of any socio-economic class, race or creed — very soon a story of pain or hardship will surface. Suffering doesn’t discriminate. I’m not a psychologist or a social worker, and don’t pretend to be. My ministry is simple: help people to get real, stop glossing over the stink in their life, get real with Jesus and invite Him into the mess. Most people, in my experience, don’t see faith as anything more than a stop-gap for their crap. Maybe they say a prayer to God when things go south, but they keep God at a safe distance. At best religion dulls the pain like Advil or distracts with some nice hollow cliche like, “It’ll all work out in the end.”

I tell them: Let’s get real with God. Jesus wants to get His hands dirty and deal with the rot. He’s not impressed with your stiff upper lip. And Jesus makes “getting real” easy for me, when I can just take out my crucifix and ask them to hold it, look at Him and speak to Him honestly from the heart about their whole world of hurt. 99% of them have never done anything resembling that before. Yet that’s what Christianity’s all about! Marx called out this kind of faith as an opiate for people. Faith’s not an opiate, it’s open heart surgery.

He said when he got out of seminary and was first a priest, his hyper-idealism made him think people should be a lot farther ahead in their faith walk than they actually were. So his homilies missed the mark and he’s sure most probably tuned him out — “Not for me.” But over the years, and especially since he began his work with addiction recovery, he saw that helping people just take “the next best step” (his favorite ministry line) could contain the brightest flashes of heroism. Sometimes, he said, it’s heroic to simply honestly acknowledge to myself how messed up my family of origin is; or to speak to my sibling in a civil tone; or speak the words “I forgive you” to my dead uncle for his past crimes against me; or pray for a parent who did me harm. “I tell them,” he continued, “sometimes just these tiniest of steps, when we can manage them, can be immense signs of grace at work in us. Things to be proud of. Before the face of God, these seeming nothings can surpass in merit all the gushing virtues in another person who seems to be so naturally capable of more ‘quantitative’ goodness than I’ll ever be.” He went on to say:

Once when I was con-celebrating a Mass, I heard a priest say in his homily, “only bring God your best when you come to Mass.” I got what he was trying to say, but I wanted to punch him then and there. I told him after Mass that, by saying things like that, he’s cheating people out of hope. Who would ever want to approach God if that’s what it took? Good God. Become a saint and then come to God with your perfect offering. Who needs that? That’s religion for choir boys. I told him he needs to tell them that God dances over tiny mustard seeds of goodness and faith we bring, and doesn’t need us to bring towering sequoias. If there’s anything the crucifix teaches, it’s that God can take the worst we’ve got. He takes sinners like us who are willing to show Him the way it is, even as we don’t like the way it is and want to be better. But for now, God, this is what we’ve got. And He’s pleased.

But without God being invited into our skeleton closet, life’s hell. True? Living in all your crap without hope that there’s a Higher Power out there who cares, who’s ready to get dirty in your screwed up world, and who has a will and a way to take you, raise you up from where you’ve fallen? I don’t know how unbelievers press on without faith. It’s hard enough when you do believe. But when people have a faith that tells them they have to have their shit together first before they can come to God? I’d prefer atheism. And in that church you’ll just have the front-row pews full of a few people living in fantasy land.

A hard-core priest. Servant of a God who is a hard-core realist, which is really the core message of the cross. Realism. God’s love is real, evil in the world is real, therefore God’s love hangs on a cross as a corpse filled with hope in a Father whose will is to raise the dead, to conquer death and hell. God is anti-Pollyanna, since love is the ground of all reality. In Christ, dwelling deep in the pit of hell on a Passover Sabbath, love is a harsh and dreadful thing

for love is strong as death,
jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

He who descends into hell with us, ascends on High for us. Come, O Lord, grasp my faltering hand, enter my darkness, and lead me out of the abyss into your Kingdom.

Solomon the Wise

“God Speaks to Solomon in a Dream” bibleencyclopedia.com

Yesterday we had a faculty retreat to begin the new academic year. It was such a breath of fresh air for all of us, and a nice reunion as most faculty were away for the summer. Here are my sprawling and free-flowing notes I wrote out at the end of the retreat after everyone left. I’ll not post tomorrow because of the length. For what they’re worth…

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Our retreat director began with the story in 1 Kings 3 of God asking young Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What a frightening request! A divine blank check! As one of my colleagues read this passage aloud, I immediately thought of the Latin dictum, Lex orandi, lex crediendi, “the law of prayer, the law of belief.” Solomon’s response to that open-ended offer would lay bare his faith life and his character as King, since we pray as we believe. “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21). Was Solomon, like his father David, really a man “after the heart of God” (cf Acts 13:22)? It was as if God were asking, “Solomon, son of David, do you love me above all things? Now, let’s see how you pray…”

I kinda wished the reader had stopped for a minute after God’s offer so we could’ve formulated our own response… What would I ask of God?

Solomon passed with flying colors! “The Lord was pleased,” the text says. Why? Because his prayer sought from God what was dearest to God’s heart. He, God’s vicar, sought from God the gift of wisdom to rightly govern His beloved people, and did not seek gifts for himself (long life, riches) or the death of his enemies. Solomon’s prayer recognized that, as king, he was God’s servant. His was only a borrowed glory, a shared governance. So he sought God’s wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge of God’s will (i.e the Law) that is applied through prudential judgment to order one’s own life and the lives of others in accord with that will. The king loves the King principally by ruling faithfully in the King’s stead. Wisdom means ordering our steps in His Word.

[lyrics below]

Jesus, the New Solomon and Wisdom incarnate, teaches us that perfect wisdom is found in the Great Commandment, as charity is the fulfillment of the Law. The wise leader, therefore, shepherds the rabble of sinful humanity into the order of charity, forming them into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). A parent, priest, principal, president tasked with this mission knows it is a brutal, thankless, exhausting task, indeed.

I just noticed Jesus’ thrice posed question to Simon Peter (John 21:15-19) bears a striking resemblance to God’s question to Solomon. Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Of course, Simon Peter vehemently insists that he does love Jesus, but Jesus presses the question further by drawing out its implications — if you love me you will govern those I love, wisely, according to my will: “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.”  And in John 21:18-19 Jesus reminds Peter where the wisdom of charity leads every leader:

When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter passed on the soul of this sage advice to his pastoral successors in 1 Peter 5:1-4. A brutal, thankless, exhausting task, as Pope Francis can no doubt attest. Yet it is a sublimely divine task, as God’s providential laboring love ceaselessly governs, guards, guides and provides for our sorry lot. The burden of leadership, carrying others to God (Numbers 11:14/Luke 15:5) offers ample opportunity for intimate union with the Good Shepherd in our exhaustion, making wise leaders into bleary-eyed, weary-headed, aching-shouldered mystics. Especially: speaking to God about those under our care, tirelessly presenting their needs to Him, is profoundly sanctifying as it very immediately mingles our concern for them with His. And in the end, sanctity is all about melding the whole tangle of our inner and outer lives with His, into a grand + alignment.

It’s why “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to justice, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

A woman I know who has five children, four with serious to severe disabilities, texted me earlier this summer asking for prayers after some rough days they’d had with hospital visits. I texted back: “Man, y’all have had a hard stretch this year.” She replied, “Yup, they exhaust me and wear me out. But God knows I’ll take exhausted with them over rested without them any day.” I texted back the Hebrew word for worship, Shâchâh, which means “face in dirt,” and told her I was doing that after reading her text. For me, heroism makes me want to #1 repent and #2 worship God for giving the world such people.

Yesterday afternoon I met another woman, the cashier at a gas station. When I asked her how she was she said, “Tired and blessed.” I said, “I love that you said ‘and blessed,’ and not ‘but blessed.'” She then told me she worked two other jobs, that her husband died last Fall, leaving her to raise three children and her deceased brother’s son. I said, “What keeps you going?” She replied with such a natural ease, pointing to the cross on her neck chain, “Real simple. Him. He did it for me so I can do it for Him. My kids know I’m only as good as I’m in His grace.” My daughter who was with me said as we walked out, “Wow that was totally random and amazing.”

Shâchâh. 

As Fr. Tom Hopko said, “Some saints are pillars of the world, while others, like me, become saints by allowing those saints to lead us along the way. It’s why devotion to saints in the Orthodox church is absolutely essential. It’s God’s way of keeping us totally inter-dependent. If all were pillars we wouldn’t cling to each other. A Christian alone is no Christian.”

As I sit with all of this here, I can’t help but reflect on the gravity of my vocation as a family man and as a teacher. I have to be like Solomon and ceaselessly beg God for wisdom and to intercede in prayer for those entrusted to my care, who are under my authority or subject to my influence. When I was on my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my 80+ year old spiritual director called me on the carpet for not praying for my wife and children by name every day. I told him I always mentioned “for my wife and family” when I prayed. But he wasn’t buying it and retorted, “The Shepherd wants names, son. And He wants details.” He continued, “God has entrusted them to your care, Tom, and He will call you to account for it. You can’t manage this one alone. You must realize that their welfare depends just as much on your prayer as it does on your supporting them in every other way. The closer people are to your circle of responsibility, the more serious is your obligation to daily pray for them by name, and pray for God to help you to serve them as they deserve. And,” he added, “you need to ask the Spirit for a double portion of wisdom and counsel because your responsibility is great and you know you’re not too bright when it comes to prudential matters.” We laughed, and then he said, “But I’m serious.”

He ended his loving reproval by saying to me, “Tom, what’s most beautiful to me about intercessory prayer is that even as you ask God to care for others, He invites you to be part of the care He gives. When you ask God to stir into action for others, you’ll feel Him stirring within you. So be careful what you ask for. You just might become it.”

When evening came, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds, so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” “They do not need to go away,” Jesus replied. “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:15-16).

Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz:

Our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness.

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Humbly, I ask Thee teach me Your will
While You are working, help me be still
‘Cos Satan is busy, God is real;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Bridle my tongue let my Words edify
Let the Words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight
Take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

CHORUS
I want to walk worthy
According to Thy will
Please order my steps Lord
And I’ll do Your blessed will
The world is ever changing
But You are still the same;
Please order my steps, Lord I’ll praise Your name

Order my steps in Your Word
Order my tongue in Your Word
Guide my feet in Your Word
Wash my heart in Your Word
Show me how to walk in Your Word
Show me how to talk in Your Word
When I need a brand new song to sing
Show me how to let Your praises ring
In your Word (2x)

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

REPEAT CHORUS ( 2 X )

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

The Safe Bet

“We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, ‘Surprise me.’” — from Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

I have been writing a lot recently in my personal journal about discerning God’s will. Here’s an excerpt from last weekend’s entry. The young man I describe graciously gave me permission to share this anonymously, so I slightly adjusted some details to respect this. This is a story I, and others I know, have heard innumerable times from young men and women.

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I came across a young man [a time ago] who wanted to speak to me about the paralysis he was feeling over what to do with his life. He was terrified of choosing the “wrong thing,” missing what God had, as he said, “selected” for him to do with his life. Evidently, someone had told him that if he wanted to sustain the intensity of the robust prayer life he’d developed, the “safe bet” was to become a priest or religious. His original college plan was to go into law, as he had been inspired by his grandfather’s legal career. But the “safe bet” approach had gotten lodged into his head and he now felt immobilized. This has killed not only his desire to enter law, but his desire to do anything. A law career now seemed to be an obstacle to his spiritual life, and priesthood and religious life seemed like an imposed requirement.

We talked for almost two hours, and focused on the importance of interior freedom, flanked by peace and joy, as the hallmark of vocational discernment. We talked about the need for wise counsel and self-knowledge. We also talked about distorted views of vocation, like this “safe bet” proposal, that create false dilemmas and, so, paralysis. Among other things, I said something like this:

When Jesus called Matthew to abandon his tax collector post to follow Him, Matthew followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. When Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree to abandon his unjust business practices as tax collector, and become a ‘son of Abraham’ in his home and at his tax post, Zacchaeus followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. But notice, in neither case was the standard for the decision-making the ‘safe bet’ option. The safe bet is “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). And everything human beings can do in life, save the choice of sin, contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, strength by loving neighbor.

For Matthew it meant giving up his trade to become a disciple-apostle-evangelist of Jesus, and eventually a martyr; for Zacchaeus it meant sticking with his trade, admitting openly (in front of his peers!) his injustices, remediating these four-fold, giving alms to the poor and becoming an upright tax collector who invited his fellow ‘sinners’ over dinner to do the same. In other words, vocations must be about the choice to glorify God by a life of self-less love, which is always the gist of every call of Jesus. “Pick up your cross and follow me” gives us that sense, as cross carrying is what loving in a fallen world looks like. Being called to be holy, holy, holy is to be all about other, other, other. God-neighbor. Jesus. Once you get that, discerning becomes a whole new thing, far from concerns hyper-centered on oneself. And your spiritual life does not become an end in itself, an obstacle to the freedom to respond to the inconvenient details of reality.

The million dollar vocational questions sound something like this: ‘Standing before the face of Jesus in prayer, how do I see myself best loving God by serving others with what I have to offer, in the direction my heart seems to be drawn in freedom as I reflect on the needs in the church-world around me?’; ‘What makes my heart naturally leap outward in love toward God-neighbor?’; ‘What sins might be hindering my accomplishing that?’ Then, start walking and put a smile on God’s face with the offering you make of your life.

I once encountered a priest who served in Sudan who said to me [I pulled up this quote for him on my phone]: You Americans, I’ve noticed, tend to begin the discernment of God’s will by thinking of personal fulfillment. ‘What will make me happy? Bring me a sense of fulfillment? Prosper me?’ It’s difficult to think of God’s will from that starting point. God is handcuffed. But in my village, my family, we start with: What do my people need? Or what does the church need? What do I have to offer? And if I see these match, and it’s a way for me to love best with the abilities God has given, deciding is easy. Loving God, which is doing God’s will, is found when you start with your neighbor’s needs. This is how I chose to be a priest. There was a need, I had an inclination and the gifts. I’m a priest. It was a simple decision, but not an easy one.

After we spoke, this young man said, “It’s like chains just fell off me.”

Then I pulled up an article by Peter Kreeft, and read this to him:

My first clue, based on my purely personal observation of this kind of people, is that we often get bent out of human shape by our desire—in itself a very good desire—to find God’s perfect will for us. We give a terrible testimony to non-Christians; we seem unable to relax, to stop and smell God’s roses, to enjoy life as God gives it to us. We often seem fearful, fretful, terribly serious, humorless, and brittle—in short, the kind of people that don’t make a very good advertisement for our faith.

I am not suggesting that we compromise one iota of our faith to appeal to unbelievers. I am simply suggesting that we be human. Go watch a ball game. Enjoy a drink—just one—unless you’re at risk for alcoholism. Be a little silly once in a while. Tickle your kids—and your wife. Learn how to tell a good joke. Read Frank Schaeffer’s funny novel Portofino. Go live in Italy for a while.

I said, “Just take a deep breath and relax. Or as my kids say to me, chillax dad! It’s not supposed to be this hard, brother.”

He choked up.

Then he said, “Okay, so I’m going to go to the zoo now, because I’ve loved zoos since I was a kid. And I will pray on all this there.”

“Speaking the truth in love” Ephesians 4:15

“Rabbinic debate” liveauctiongroup.net

[this was an email I sent to someone who recently asked me for advice on “how to win an argument”. Seemed good to post on the feast of St Dominic, the Veritas saint!]

“Truth happens in the course of dialogue. There is always a temptation to allow our answers to bring to an end the process of searching, as if the topic of the conversation was a problem that has now been solved. But when a fresh question arrives, the unexhausted depths of mystery show through once more. Let it be said over and over again: faith is not a question of problems but of mystery, so we must never abandon the path of seeking and asking.” ― Tomáš Halík

I had a philosophy professor, when I first began my graduate work, who would never affirm anything a student said but would always immediately qualify, critique or expand on each answer. I remember being so frustrated by this! In fact, I remember one time when, in my emotional exasperation, I threw caution to the wind. Right after I’d given what I was certain was the right answer, he began with his, “Well, it’s important not to…” I just blurted out, “Come on, Dr. Heisenberg, can’t you ever just say ‘good answer’ and leave it at that?” He replied, “And what would you learn, then? That you have the whole truth and that settles it all? How boring! Then the dialogue would end. No one ever has it all. We’re always on the way.” Then he taught us a medieval scholastic axiom. “In any argument,” he said, “seldom affirm or deny and always make distinctions. In other words, rarely say, ‘That settles it!’ or ‘You’re wrong!’, but discover the portion of truth in what is said and set it on a journey toward greater things. That way, you keep the relationship alive with your dialogue partner, and you reaffirm your commitment to learning more. We’re always on the way.”

I wanted to explode.

Here I could see — after I calmed my pride — for the first time the deeper meaning of another medieval scholastic axiom he taught us, Amor ipse notitia est, “love itself is a form of knowing.” The quest for knowledge, if it is done well, should cultivate love between fellow seekers. When carried out thus, arguments should augment friendship. The goal of an argument should not be, “I won!” or “You won!” but “truth has appeared,” which for lovers of truth is a cause for common rejoicing and gratitude. What each sought all along has now been found and is the possession of both. Triumph! But if truth-seeking is undertaken merely as a pursuit of private property or becomes a manipulative vying for the upper hand, making of knowledge a commodity and not a common good, then dialogue will always devolve into a competition and “victory” will always mean the defeat of love.

Whether in philosophy or theology, this approach has taught me not to view apologetics as the hunt for a silver bullet or a slam-dunk argument meant to silence my opponent. Rather, apologetics is to be a method for cultivating and sustaining in every conversation a common quest for truth’s appearing. This is, in fact, how God deals with us. When He becomes flesh to invite us into all Truth, and we responded with the counter-argument of the cross, He rose again only to re-extend the invitation in merciful love to join Him in an eternal friendship, exploring the fullness of Truth that sets us free.

There was a woman I knew in Florida, an atheist who converted to Catholicism, who shared with me what her impetus was for converting. She said, “William [a work colleague] gave me my first real exposure to intelligent Christianity. But what was most convincing about him was that he took my own arguments against his positions very seriously. And you know, when you believe someone is willing to listen to you and learn from you, when you disagree, you’re much more likely to return the favor. That’s rare. And I did.” Pope Benedict’s words make this point well:

Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity

This approach to any and all arguments, I have found, holds out the highest hope of forging out of difference philo-sophia, a love of wisdom that fosters friendship. And Truth is very interested in friendship (John 15:15). The sweetest debates I have ever had are still ongoing, with men and women who share this commitment and have allowed friendship to emerge from disagreement. When what is sought is not conquest but Christ, who is Truth, the end-game is always the victory of charity. If we follow His example, every time we get in an argument we would do well to begin washing each other’s feet as we argue, so as to maintain the focus on truth’s service to love.

Amor vincit omnia, “Love conquers all.”