My Advent Back-Flip

This post all about me, so there you have it.

I deactivated my iPhone and have returned to a flip phone for Advent, and from then on.

It’s not a crusade, or some grand protest against smartphones and the like. It was a decision of personal necessity, a recognition of discerned limits.

When my family first got me an iPhone 27 months ago for my birthday, I told them that I had long resisted getting one because I knew myself well enough to know it would be hard for me not to turn it into (1) a portable, total-work-portal and (2) to over-engage my knack for prolixity in communicating with the revolutionary voice-to-text. I give new meaning to the word “hypertext.”

I anticipated I would be tempted, and so it was.

I fought valiantly, devised various schemes for limiting myself, but alas! I was vanquished. I’m intense, and my mind never sleeps. The iPhone, well suited to such a penchant, offered me ever-fresh fodder in steady supply. Good things, indeed, just far too many of them. During our anniversary getaway in October, I realized, after a long and wonderfully deep conversation with my wife, that my mentality — my presence of mind — had become diffused, distracted, doubled by the iPhone. In fact, “doubled” best expressed for me the effect, as the phone had shaped in me a potent bias toward a virtual ‘elsewhere,’ detracting from the concrete world of my immediate daily existence that demands primacy as it contains my primary vocation.

My asceticism in general largely looks like barricade building, as I identify my weaknesses and temptations and then systematically limit their access to preferred suppliers. For me, this works best as, instead of choosing to talk to the devil directly, I just avoid and block my access to his favored haunts. As a friend of mine (who has lived a lot of life) often says, “I can resist everything but temptation.” lol And I usually bring other people into the act, to ensure accountability, as I am too willing to excuse small transgressions until they snowball into sizable ones. I imagine I’m not different than most. My wife is my technology accountability partner, and she has been excellent in keeping me honest, in her typically brutally honest way. Deo gratias.

Yes, I have lost quite a number of wonderful features the iPhone afforded me, which are such gifts; especially group texting, voice-to-text, and easy access to calendar/email. But a week into it, the benefits of flipping have been immediate and wondrous, with some being surprisingly unexpected. If I seem to be exaggerating, I’m not. I’ll name four benefits to give you a taste:

  1. I very quickly experienced a freeing diminishment of those diffusing, distracting and doubling effects, and a rapid re-entry into the slow moving, mundane and concrete world of my immediate daily existence. So much so, that I have had some genuine ‘wow’ moments in seeing my mentality re-center and settle back on the faces and places in front of me. The world has shaded brighter, more colorful, more vivid.
  2. Having lost my GPS, I now have returned to a favorite past-time: reading and memorizing road maps. I found myself this week dazzled at the resurrection of my spacial imagination, realizing I have never really learned Louisiana in my own mind. All I could think of last weekend as I drove to Albany, LA to do a parish mission was Psalm 84:5: “They are happy in whose hearts are the roads to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)!
  3. Now that texting (and emailing limited to my desktop) without voice-to-text is quite an effort, like handwriting, what I text is much more intentional, concise and thought out. I’ve remembered a bit more just how much I appreciate individual words and the labor of writing them. Flip texting (and desktop emailing) also slows down the volume of correspondence massively, which, while I lose out on many good things, has allowed me to re-appreciate simplicity. It has also made me much much more realistic about how many conversations I can (and should) actually sustain.
  4. As the camera-video features are pathetic, I have lost the tendency I had to want to capture, more than simply experience, the world happening around me in real-time. I love taking photos of people and things to treasure and share, but I found the iPhone made me think more and more of life as better captured and shared than experienced raw in the moment without a lens and savored later in conversation and memory.

I share all of this as a personal quest to place digital communications technology in service to my humanity; to my vocation; to my quest to be, as my colleague Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome says so well, “connected toward communion.” I wish to be able to worthily receive the sacrament of the present moment at every moment. I wish to conserve my ability to attend with love, before all else, to my neighbor, to my nigh-bor, the nearby inhabitants of my immediate world that command my attention first and foremost. To receive the grace that’s in my face.

My Advent motto is, Simplify, do or die. Time will tell.

I’ll leave you with 10 additional reasons I, also, preferred the flip. Hopefully they will make you smile.

Let go and let God

“The Annunciation,” Nicolas Poussin. 1660.

A blessed Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to all.

+ + +

In this great fiat of the little girl Mary, the strength and foundation of our life of contemplation is grounded, for it means absolute trust in God, trust which will not set us free from suffering but will set us free from anxiety, hesitation, and above all from the fear of suffering. Trust which makes us willing to be what God wants us to be, however great or however little that may prove. Trust which accepts God as illimitable Love. ― Caryll Houselander

A 92 year woman I know here in New Orleans spoke to me about the loneliness of old age with me last week. I have come to know her well. She is effectively estranged from most of her six children. Such a tragic story. I had asked her that particular day what was hardest about her life now. She said,

The time you have to think about the past is hard. Very hard. Regrets. My children [tears] … But, let me tell you, when you get old you realize what matters and what doesn’t matter. You get perspective. Things you thought were so important, aren’t. What matters is love. If you could go back, take words back, you’d do it all differently. But there’s no going back. That’s always there.

I just sit and look at [the image on her wall of] Jesus and tell Him things. He’s such a good listener. His face always tells me, “Give me everything.” Such a kind face. [smile, tears] The best part of getting old is that you can just let go, because what’s left? [laugh] It’s like He just gently pries everything out of your hands and then you just realize one day, “Wow, it’s all gone!” [soft laugh] I am grateful God allowed me to stay this long. I’m not afraid of dying. He knows I’m ready any time to let go. I tell Him every day, I’m ready when you are.

Then I asked her what she would tell me, as a young man, what I should do that she wished she had done. She said,

Let go and let God. Trust Him. And love as much as you can. Take lots of time to love. You’ll never regret loving. Never. Only not. Especially your children. When you think back on your life, you’ll say, “Every time I took to love, that’s what mattered. No regrets.”

When I got home that night, among other things, I wrote,

As I listened to her, I was deeply moved by the childlike way she expressed an almost majestic inner freedom that she used to give herself over to God. In her presence, I could feel inside of me all of my clasping and clinging exposed. So much reason for bitterness in her life, yet only sweetness. But not living in fantasy; very real. And her humility is so deeply meshed ‘in her fibers,’ so totally natural and unaffected that she is without any trace of self-conscious obsession. No proving, defending, justifying, rationalizing, grasping left.

All I could think was — this is what being without sin must have meant for Mary; why Mary was able to so very naturally surrender her soul and body over to God so completely that He could take her to Himself without her having to die first. Let it be done to me! For us, proximity to death gives us opportunity to succumb to Love. Dispossession.

May my time be wasted on loving, on letting go, on just looking at Him and telling Him things. He’s such a good listener, such a kind face. His face always tells me, “Give me everything.”

Listen to the Mustn’ts

[one last ’til Thursday…a free-falling meditation I wrote in a coffee shop on John 19:30 spilling all over everything. Ave=”Hail!” and Nova Eva=”New Eve”]

Yes, that’s the heart of Advent.

O preposterous, breaking-and-entering Thief, opening fissures in our hardened Heartland! Onto parched clay, thirsty earth, you splashed, splattered down torrential waters. A dreadful drenching, awe-inducing, hope-producing, life-diffusing Kingdom come.

Into the Land of Impossibles, the Possible. Into the Land of Fate, Providence. Into the Land of Won’t, Will. Into the Land of Can’t, Did. Into the Land of Not, Is. Into the Land of No, Yes. Into the Land of Old, New. Into the Land of Death, Life.

We are the fissures, priests of creation’s undoing, redoing, calling down Downpours on our Land’s re-creation. Offering from desert death, a Garden bloom.

What Child is this, dreaming of such Impossibles? Listen, O priestly-Man, to God-with-us saying in His dying, “It is finished!” Now new, Anything can be — miracles, martyrs, mercy, Mass testify of this eloquently.

O Come, O Come all who tighten the knot of Eve ’round the neck of God! Me, in my every binding sin. Behold! In cradle and cross, One of Three co-entangled, untangling by the Ave to Nova Eva to set us free.

A Gardener, unobtrusive as the dewfall, heavy-laden with sowing seeds, scattering liberally, profusely, wastefully. Beneath His footsteps earth splits open, yawning, yearning, receiving sunward the downfalling Dew; flowering in song.

Awaken. Sprout. Flower. Seed. Die only to Rise in Eternity.

¡Absolutamente imposible!


A Small Step

Mustard seed

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. — Pope Francis

My sagely grandfather once wrote me in a letter, “Never be discouraged by your shortcomings, Tommy. Use them to stretch your soul. Remember, your greatest virtues are not those that come naturally but ones nearly impossible to perform. Holding a sharp tongue once far surpasses in worth a surplus of easily spoken kind words. Cracking a feeble smile from a dim soul to lift an ignoble lout vastly outshines the outpouring of exuberant joy from a bright heart lavished on a cheery friend. Value the difficult good things in life most. Every day, your next best step.”

That’s writing.

So often people who strive to live a life of faith share with me a deep exasperation over their inability to do all the good they wish, pray as they would hope, forgive as they must, be patient as they desire, and so on. They are hemmed in by a thousand limits, internal and external, and become discouraged, frustrated, angry, guilt-ridden. I understand this so well. Yet the beauty of our God! Revealed for who-He-is in a cradle and on a cross, He is irresistibly drawn to small spaces, inconvenient circumstances, tiny mustard seeds. He, lover of the Widow’s Mite, dances over fitful acts of faith, hope and love. He is absurdly pleased with our pathetic nothings, born of heartfelt sincerity, steeped in reckless trust, all the while surrendered to His boundless mercy.

I know a Catholic woman with lots of children who felt for years like she was a failure in her spiritual life because of her inability to make any significant time for focused prayer or to muster any meaningful feelings of devotion when she finally found time. She said guilt and anger became her primary spiritual disposition toward God. Then she met a contemplative Carmelite nun in Rhode Island to whom she confided her struggle. She said the nun floored her when she said, “What God gives to me in 6 hours of prayer a day, He gives to you in the few minutes you consecrate to Him. The joy He takes in my silent contemplation is exceeded by the joy He takes in your harried frustration, given over to Him. Your desire to please Him renders all of the walls around you into an iconostasis.”


The woman said to me, “Those words are what I call my ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was let out of my prison of guilt that day.”

This made me think of 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s tender words, “God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love Him. He accepts our petitions as benefits as though we were doing Him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving.”

So when you feel most useless, helpless, feckless, aimless, wrap it up in faith, light it up with hope and send it up with love into the Heart of God. But be ready. Out of that pierced Heart floods a raging fountain of mercy, and mercy takes no prisoners.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

God loves me more … for you

[Re-post from 2014. Again, no posts until the weekend. Peace and joy!]

“All you can take with you is that which you give away.”

That quote, which appears in a scene of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, captures the economy of God’s Kingdom. While it most certainly refers to the importance of alms given to the poor, it refers more generally to a way of life based on this premise: All that I possess, without exception, is inscribed with the law of love and so must be always turned otherward if it is to achieve its proper end. Every gift I possess is marked with a secret arrow pointing at someone in need.

God’s special favor to one is always done in view of all, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God’s special love for one is an epiphany of His love for all who will benefit from the gifts of the one. God loves no one in isolation. The Virgin Mary was given unique privileges of grace not so she could revel in being loved and favored more than others, but rather so she could bear the immense responsibility of being God’s Mother and, as New Eve, the Mother of all those re-created in her Son.

When a reporter shared her dismay at God’s seeming unfairness in giving Mother Teresa health, while those she served suffered various ailments and misfortunes, Mother replied along these lines, “The suffering are given the great gift of sharing in the world’s redemption with Jesus on the cross. I am not worthy to suffer as they, but I am worthy to walk with them. And if I am given health, it is so that I might spend my health on caring for the sick. It would only be unfair if I spent my health on myself. But God gives nothing unfairly. Only we are unfair.”

Health as a sign of divine favor to the sick? My God. What a vision of life if you really live out of it.

As I look at every gift I have been given in life, my question should always be, “For whom was this given to me?” Vanity is when I imagine my gifts are principally meant to draw benefit on myself — attention, accolades, indulgence, ease.

Even God sees Himself bound by this law, in this way. He freely created all things because His love demanded that His existence, with all of its infinitely rich attributes, be given away. God is one but not alone. God is Three, as God-ness demands being given away: Father to Son, Son to Father, Father and Son to Spirit. Creation was the natural sequel to this eternal dynamism.

A Sister at the Missionary of Charity hospice I worked at said to me, “You can know God only when you love, and you can love only when you know you are loved.” Ah. It helped me understand afresh the meaning of 1 John 4:20, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Fr. Anthony, my spiritual director years ago, said to me in a vulnerable moment, “I want to die poor, empty, with nothing left to give.” Three weeks before he died, his doctor said, “You need to have heart surgery, Tony.” He said, “Yes, yes, after Christmas. I need to be with my people for Christmas.” When he did not show up for the Vigil Mass on December 31, they came into the Rectory looking for him. They found him in his rocking chair, with an afghan and a rosary in hand, dead. His surgery was scheduled for January 2.

ever-Whirling Trinity

Elijah calls down fire.

Some celestial event. No – no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea. — Ellie Arroway in the movie, Contact

During Mass, a poem opened in me. It came between the calling down of the Spirit (epiclesis) and the Consecration. I sensed the coming of two Persons – Spirit and Son — sent by the Father to render themselves radically present, tearing open the heavens to come down and save us as God-with-us.

So far, too close! I want to run, I never want to leave.

I shivered. It was as if an immaterial Fire swirled ‘round the altar, bearing within it an infinite love streaming from the Heart of the Risen Jesus.

Mysterium fidei.

O Whirling Trinity
At present now, I my longing vigil keep
looking round-about for you, O Far-Near,
you who neither slumber nor sleep
who in love I seek, even as yet I fear.
You come so fast, of sudden, falling into sight:
Love’s descent, then, now and ever yet to be,
I choose you, O thrice holy Light of Light,
my Coming, Crashing, ever-Whirling Trinity.

“For I am compassionate” — Exodus 22:26

In honor of today’s readings at Mass, a few of my personal favorite quotes.

Just as love for God makes it possible to love our neighbor, love for neighbor makes it possible for us to love God. This was a mutually reinforcing mode of love by which Christians achieved perfection in virtue. For [St.] Maximus this perfection was virtually synonymous with divinization. People become like God and assimilate themselves to God according to the extent to which their love of neighbor imitates divine compassion. — Susan Wessel

I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. ― Servant of God Dorothy Day

[God the Father said:] Your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you. From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect and that you have been drinking from your vessel outside of the fountain, even though your love was drawn from me. But it is because your love for me is imperfect that you show it so imperfectly to those you love with a spiritual love. — St. Catherine of Siena

Such are the souls of the saints: they love their enemies more than themselves, and in this age and in the age to come they put their neighbor first in all things, even though because of his ill-will he may be their enemy. They do not seek recompense from those whom they love, but because they have themselves received they rejoice in giving to others all that they have, so that they may conform to their Benefactor and imitate His compassion to the best of their ability; ‘for He is bountiful to the thankless and to sinners’ (cf. Luke 6:35). —  St. Peter of Damaskos

The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question. — Nicholas Berdyaev

There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering. — St. Ambrose

If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless. ― Pope Benedict XVI