I rely on the Word

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”

 

The Childlike

I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will — Matt. 11:25-27

These words from yesterday’s Gospel at Mass continue to stir inside of me. Jesus spoke these words of prayer to the Father right after having excoriated the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, who refused to “repent” (11:20) in the face of His many deeds of power. In a moment, Jesus shifts from grief and anger to a prayer of praise to the Father for His gracious providential will. What a contrast!

They had not “repented” – metenoēsan — which means they refused to have a “change of mind.” Because that is the real goal of Jesus’ miracles and ministry, cognitive therapy; to invite us to a radical change of mind that accords with the mind of God.

We often think of the word “repent” as a mere moral exhortation, i.e. cease doing evil and learn to do good. While that is a core element of repentance, its main thrust is to invite a deep paradigm shift in the way we see everything, i.e. to acquire the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). As the Emerson said,

Sow a thought, reap an action;
sow an act, reap a habit;
sow a habit, reap a character;
sow a character, reap a destiny.

Jesus’ frustration with Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum is that His miracles failed to produce their desired effect, which is to blow open minds so they could be reformed in the divine image. The Latin word miraculum, deriving from the root word mirari, which means “wonder, astonishment, amazement,”  conveys this point well. Miracles, authored by Truth incarnate, are meant to “blow our settled categories” and incite wonder, making us susceptible to change. Wonder, a gift of the Spirit, is the beginning of any quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Note, from this perspective, miracles are not dazzling tricks of a magician meant to amaze spectators at God’s power to violate the laws of nature He Himself established. Rather, they are extraordinary displays of the final meaning of creation, the ultimate (and so “ordinary”) mission of human life, i.e. to feed the hungry, cure the sick, free the oppressed, forgive sin, and so on. In other words, each miracle contains a divine-human deed and an implicit command of mercy. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they manifest their God-destined fulfillment in the new creation that Jesus came to inaugurate by re-founding this creation on the law of cruciform love.

You might say that miracles are “performed” so that their recipients and witnesses will be dazzled into wonder sufficiently to embrace “these things” of the Gospel (see Matt. 5-7) and then perform the truth each miracle contains and signifies.

And so we return to Jesus’ praise to the Father for the fact that only the “childlike” are able to see, embrace and perform the wondrous beauty of this new creation’s law of merciful love. In fact, the word Jesus uses to describe these childlike is nēpiois, which is better translated “infants.” Wow! Why? Because only infants, who are wonder incarnate, are entirely disposed to being (re)formed by the newness of the world they see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Only infants open up in absolute trust to their mother and father to faithfully interpret the world for them.

In the face of the dawning of a new creation, inscribed in Blood with the law of the Gospel, we need to become infants again and surrender ourselves in absolute trust to the revelation of our re-creating Father, and of His only-begotten Son who entered this world first as an infant.

Teach me, O Christ, to repent, to think anew in wonder at the mystery of merciful love you revealed on the Cross; to live that love out to the full in trust and in that way lead all to their final destiny when you will be All in All. Amen.

Fidelity, Fatherhood and Prayer

When Ashley and our daughter Maria performed the other week at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, as part of the Al Copeland Foundation’s “Chicken Jam” fundraiser which supports new local cancer research, education and patient programs, it was for me, my wife and our other children a blended experience of joy, nerves and pride. This was their largest venue thus far, with nearly an hour to fill with music.

They soared.

There was even a friend of mine, herself a musician (and a theologian), who flew all the way from Chicago to New Orleans just to see and hear them. I told her that all of us were overwhelmed by her show of support, but she quipped back, “Support? Are you kidding? They don’t need my support! I just wanted to hear them perform live!”

Growing up, I passed by so many opportunities to try new things that involved the vulnerability of risk. I lived with a certain fear of failure, of being shamed by peers, and so mostly chose to blend in and pick the low-hanging fruit, playing it safe. This is not a ‘woe is me,’ simply a statement of fact.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand (aka grace), after my faith conversion in 1987, I rapidly shed a large portion of those fears and began to venture out into new and uncharted territories. I am exceedingly grateful to God for this, as so much of what I have been able to do in my life would never have been had I remained in the prison of fear.

Raising our own children, Patti and I, encouraged by so many extraordinary parents, families and friends we came to know, worked mightily to offer them an environment and opportunities to spread their wings, to risk new adventures, to discover the gifts God has placed in them.

Innumerable times over the years, the ghosts of my past would haunt me in the night, warning me of grave dangers that awaited my children were they to step out into the unknown. These shadows, bearing weapons of fear and despair, knew well my weaknesses. Without prayer, which I clung to in those nights, I don’t know how I could have pressed on with confidence for our children.

This is where my vocation as father saved me, the knowledge that my children needed me to be something far larger than those constricted spaces of my soul circumscribed by my own limits. Fatherhood called me to transcend those limits for them, to remove my gaze from my own issues and choose instead to focus on the potential of their God-given greatness. As a Confessor once said to me, “They are God’s children, only yours on loan. Help them seek His vision for them, not yours. His is much bigger and better.”

I recall a very specific time when I was bogged down by a “Tom-limit” in dealing with one of our children who was facing a very difficult time. My wife, who detected my struggle, directly confronted me on it. It was an important epiphany for me. She said,

I know what you’re thinking and what you’re afraid of, but you’ve got to remember that it’s your issue. You can’t let it get in the way of letting [our child] learn for himself how much he can handle. You have to set aside your own stuff, step out of yourself and challenge him to see just how far he can go. God knows and I know what you want to protect him from, but he doesn’t need to know.

Wow, when someone knows you that well there’s just no hiding. What a grace! I am convinced that those who lack such vulnerability in a friendship simply cannot grow. That day, I grew. As did my son.

All of our children have vastly transcended my limits, by God’s grace, each discovering their signature uniqueness, going places I would never have dreamed of going. It’s awesome to see. While they have and will always face the hardships life brings, and fail along the way, to see their wings spread, their hearts swell, their gifts blossom, their characters solidify, their faith come alive in a way wholly unique to each … well, there are few greater joys I can imagine sharing in life with my wife.

One of my favorite prayers has become sharing with God my constant amazement over the miracle that is each of our children. I am grateful when I see my own good qualities in them, exceedingly grateful when I see them surpass my limits, and overwhelmed with gratitude when I see God draw out good for them from my own failures as a father.

Ashley and Maria sang that night a song I had never heard before, Fidelity by Regina Spector. As they sang, I was awash in gratitude while standing with my family and my friend from Chicago. Copious tears streamed down my face, at those words…

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart…

That’s it. Love has broken my heart. May it never recover.

I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Well, it breaks my heart
Suppose I never ever met you
Suppose we never fell in love
Suppose I never ever let you
Kiss me so sweet and so soft
Suppose I never ever saw you
Suppose you never ever called
Suppose I kept on singing love songs
Just to break my own fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Just to break my fall
Break my fall
Break my fall
All my friends say
That of course it’s
Gonna get better
Gonna get better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
Better
I never loved nobody fully
Always one foot on the ground
And by protecting my heart truly
I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in mind
All this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
I hear in my mind
All of these voices
I hear in my mind
All of these words
I hear in my mind
All of this music
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
Breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart
And it breaks my heart

For us men and for our salvation…

“Something that is yours forever is never precious” ― Chaim Potok

On Saturday, I taught a class on Sacred Scripture at the seminary. Part of the day I spent sharing with the students the immensity and complexity of the history of Israel’s journey from Abram to Jesus that gave us the “Old Testament,” and especially focused on the enormous hardships and suffering Israel endured “for us men and for our salvation” so that we would have privileged access to God’s self-revelation in His inspired Word.

I also mentioned at one point how this should shape in us a sense of reverence and gratitude every time we receive, ponder, pray, teach the words of Scripture, realizing that these words we hear in the Liturgy or read in the Bible were inscribed on parchment at great cost to both God and God’s People.

Throughout the evening after that class, and into the day on Sunday, I was overwhelmed by this awareness. By chance, my Mom asked yesterday if we could watch Fiddler on the Roof, one of our family’s favorite musicals. When we got to the scene near the end of the film, when the Jews in Anatevka are forced out of their homes into exile, my inner sense of awe and gratitude reached a fever pitch. I immediately thought of the Orthodox Jewish Rabbi I worked with in Hartford back in the 1980’s, whom I have quoted here before. He once said to me, when I asked him what it meant to him to be part of God’s chosen people,

Some chosen-ness! Disasters, enslavements, exiles, genocides, forever wandering the earth like our father Abraham. This is the terrible and blessed burden of being chosen, of making known His holiness among the nations. Baruch Hashem.

Baruch Hashem means, “Blessed is the Name (of G-d).”

He also added, “I will say, if you Christians are right that Jesus is the Messiah, his fate certainly fits the Jewish mold well. God asks us always, like our father Abraham, to leave everything behind whenever He asks it of us. To place whatever He gives, back into His Hands. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]. Only then can we be free to shine the light of Torah wherever we find ourselves.”

Last night I wrote in my journal, “The handing on of God’s Torah, His Word to the world requires of His covenant people that they be willing, in the final analysis, to let go of absolutely everything else except for fidelity to Him. Only what we are willing to surrender, to let go of, to give away becomes His revelation. And only what is given away is received forever in the Age to Come.”

Be glad as children

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St. Teresa of Avila tells the story of a time she was coming down the steps of her convent when she saw a child standing outside. The child spoke to her and said, “Who are you?” Teresa answered, “I am Teresa of Jesus, who are you?” With a smile, the child answered with great energy, “I am Jesus of Teresa!” Of course, she realized in that moment that it was Christ, who promptly vanished.

I just heard this story in a lecture by Fr. Francis Martin, and was blown away by its simple beauty. “Of Jesus,” “of Teresa” is clearly a statement of mutual belonging between two people bound to one another by a covenant of love, as in the language of the Song of Songs 6:3,

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

The fact that Jesus appeared as a child to say this to her is also stunning, as it reminds us that to enter this covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must do so as Jesus adjures in Matthew 18:2-4,

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I was so struck by the child’s smile and energy! In that I see a heart filled with joy, wonder, playful zest, openness, trust, love, humility. 300 years later, St. Teresa’s spiritual daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, would develop a whole spiritual vision of the “little way” around this encounter.

The other week when I was in Iowa, I sat on a bench by a lake and watched a small child excitedly playing with some bugs he had found. His mother was busy on her iPhone for at least 20 minutes, wholly oblivious to the explosive joy erupting in front of her as he would cry out now and again, to no avail, “Mama, look! Mama look!”

At first, this made me feel sad for the child, that the mother would not respond to his attempts to draw her into his tiny world of amazement. But when I saw that this was not diminishing his joy in any way, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Fr. Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov,

Pray to God for gladness. Be glad as children, as the birds of heaven. And let not the sin of men around you confound you in your doings. Fear not that it will wear away your work and hinder its being accomplished. Do not say, ‘Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpless, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done.’ Fly from that dejection, children!

In truth, belonging to Christ, who is the fountain of eternal childhood, steels you against a world grown cold and sad in its loss of the capacity to discover in all moments the unfettered joy of shared wonder over God’s amazing creation.

Even as the world around you gripes and groans, dance! And pray to the God-made-child…

Jesus, may I join you?

“Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Find out what God’s doing. It’s already blessed.” ― Bono

When I went to work with the Missionaries of Charity at Gift of Peace in D.C., the Sister who oriented me said, “Before you arrived today, Jesus was already here befriending and loving those we have welcomed into our home. So we ask you today as you begin to join His work, to join with us.”

She at once brought me to the chapel and we both knelt at the foot of the sanctuary. She prayed aloud, “Dear Jesus, welcome brother Tom into our work and bless him with the friendship of those we serve.” She then prayed some of their formal prayers, and we returned to her office. Among other things, she said,

Your mission here is first of all to meet those we serve as equals. We are brothers and sisters. Look at them eye to eye. If they fall, get down on the ground with them. If they are hungry, eat with them. If they need your care, ask them if you can walk with them.

When you see their poverty, see yours as well. If you want to bring them to God, let them lead you to Him also. Jesus came down from heaven to feed us and be fed by us, to teach us and be taught by us, to love us and be loved by us.

Before you walk into any situation, pray, “Jesus, what is it that you are about here? May I join you?”

I remember feeling as I never had before that Jesus was indeed fully alive and active before I arrived, while I was there, and have felt so ever since. My role, I saw, was to simply step into His ceaseless work as a co-worker.