Let us reason together

Rabbis arguing. patheos.com

[re-posting from 2017]

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. — Tomáš Halík

My philosophy professor of 25+ years ago, who was a Catholic, used to invite students to his home once a month for a debate experience. He wanted those of us interested to learn the art of the “disputation” in real time. He would bait us with a loaded question, usually a morally dicey situation, and let us go. At the end, he would critique each of us and offer insights.

One of those evenings, he said something to us that really rocked my narrow world. A student told him how hard it was to get into arguments with people who rejected Catholic teaching. He said that because we Catholics claim to have the fullness of Truth, he began with the assumption that they are wrong and so lost all patience with them. I recorded in my notes that the professor, among many other things, said these things in response. Of course, all of this is in Nealese, but hopefully caught the essence of his wisdom.

…at the end of a good argument, no one should ever say, ‘I won’ or ‘You win.’ Each should say, ‘Let us rejoice, truth has more fully appeared!’ … even if Catholics say the Church holds the fullness of Truth, no one person in that Church ever possesses or embodies or understands that fullness entirely. This is what Augustine was after when he said, Si comprehendis, non est Deus, “If you comprehend, it’s not God.” Christ alone is the fullness of Truth, the Church is forever unfolding that fullness; and each member more or less retains a fragment of that whole.

… Truth isn’t a possession or a weapon, it’s the goal of a common quest. Truth confronts us, seizes us, encounters us, calls us, judges us. Truth always eludes full possession, is always partial, tending toward more, is always beyond. And more perfect reception of truth always demands dialogue, disagreement, debate and discussion to be discovered. The debates in Acts 15 are the Church at her finest, achieving unity in truth through a holy brawl.

… even God, when He came down to reason with us in a fully human form, as a man only came to the full articulation of truth after years and years of questioning, debating, discussing, disagreeing, arguing. Truth Himself, when He became flesh, had to grow in wisdom through these human methods, and only came to truth with us. With Mary and Joseph, with his local rabbi, the scholars of the law, disciples, regular people who asked him questions, argued with him or gave Him ideas for His teaching. Jesus never hid in an ideological ghetto, He set out into every Jewish or Gentile sect — even debating Satan. So the Church must follow His lead to receive His truth.

… if you can first agree with your conversationalist, in humility, that you’re both seeking truth in the matter at hand, you can bridge the distance between you; let go of defensiveness; see the other as a necessary partner on this quest. Not simply, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ Then you get nowhere. It seems God has set the whole pursuit of truth up to force us to draw together closer. We just can’t get to it without relating to each other, or to God. And especially relating to people we find disagreeable. Dialogue, which means ‘to think through’ someone else, is the only path to Reality. Truth and love need each other.

… and every debate, disagreement, argument that ends is always a perfect beginning for a new quest. No one really seeking truth says, “I’ve got it!’ They say, ‘A little closer!’ Every good idea begins as a heresy seeking orthodoxy, as a partial seeing, as a new departure from a portion toward the whole. Learn to love to learn, to debate, to disagree, to confess new insights with others, and to harbor no ill feelings. If you follow the fair-play rules, you’ll never leave such an exchange bitter or defensive or angry. Truth seeking requires loads of virtue, like patience, humility, magnanimity, charity, courage. And good humor.

… and be sure to love throughout it all. Truth without love is crushing tyranny, and love without truth is alienating anarchy.

This profoundly shaped my worldview.

Do you love yourself?

“Thirst for life … I try to be excited about things that are mundane, because every day should be special.” — Girl in the Video

Someone asked me last week a question that made me squirm: “What do you love most about yourself?” After the awkward bout with how to answer that question, I thought of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “degrees of love” that culminate in “love of self for God’s sake” as the highest form of love possible.

In this stage of psycho-spiritual maturity, you see yourself as lovable because you know you are infinitely loved, and from that unshakable ground you can serenely love even the most bitter hater with the same love with which you are loved. You cease requiring everyone’s approval and validation in order to accept yourself, no longer operating out of compulsively driven needs but out of the freedom of the children of God — because you see yourself, others, the world as God sees.

This was Jesus. He said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). Through the grace that comes from faith, Jesus shares with us His same capacity for love that is, literally, super-natural, above our animal nature’s power to achieve on its own. The whole goal of the spiritual life, the end game of the Incarnation, is to let the Father love us. From that fountainhead, all else flows.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us — 1 John 4:10

Damn that’s hard. But the alternatives suck. When we drop our ultimacy anchor into anything or anyone other than divine love, and lose sight of who (and whose) we really are, we sink into self-hatred, into a life of self-absorbed superficiality, distraction or addiction to kill the pain of our loss. And we pass on the pain.

Okay, so what do I love most about myself? As I look, I see and fall in love with the wild array of beauties that attend my being human in the divine image; my being a bearer of charisms whose reach is far beyond me; my carrying the grace of the indwelling Trinity; my receiving in each moment a vocation to be one with Patti and father to our children; my existing as the object of God’s pazzo d’amore, “mad love”; my delighting in rain, the sea, laughter, friendship, music, learning, fishing, napping, gardening, biking, birdwatching, writing; in my being called to serve and not be served. And in the insane truth that God mercys me in my wretched state.

Ah! There’s so much more!

If I count them, they are more than the sand;
at the end I am still at your side. – Psalm 139:18

So for me it’s really impossible to whittle it all down to one thing, or rank them. But I must say my knee-jerk that day was much the same as the girl I quoted above: I love that I “thirst for life…I try to be excited about things that are mundane, because every day should be special.” I love that I so love this world.

What’s yours?

Enveloped by Truth


To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all. Each one of us needs to work at searching for truth, not be afraid of it. We need to strive to live in truth, because the truth sets us free, even if it means living in loneliness and anguish at certain moments. Perhaps this search for truth is a process of letting ourselves be enfolded in truth rather than possessing truth, as if it were an object that we could possess, that we could use against others. ~Jean Vanier

Everyone should have in their life someone who knows them exceedingly well and who will be brutally honest with them, tell them the unvarnished truth. Hiding from honesty stunts growth. My grandfather wrote me once, “keep your friends close and your critics closer.” In other words, he said, “you must be open at all times to different viewpoints if greatness is your aim.” “But,” he added, “your best critics are the ones who love you, who have your best interests at heart.”

St. Paul in Ephesians 4:15 would agree:

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

Grow up. This is what my wife said to me in the early years of our marriage, when I wanted to quit a job because it was not exactly what I wanted. “It’s not about what you want, but what your family needs.” That moment was for me a kind of revolution. Patti has the charism of truth, for those interested in truth. She never lies, never speaks ill of others behind their backs. Never. Even if she is honest in her opinions about others, she’s fair and factual.

But greatest of all to me, out of her mouth comes a double-edged sword that rises from her heart and cuts into mine. I have told her again and again, it’s her most divine gift to me and it has saved me from myself many times. The stories I could recount are countless.

I have told the story here before about the day I decided to quit my PhD program, the same day that 9 months of intensive writing had been trashed by a member of my dissertation committee: “Tom, delete and re-write. It’s a piece of shit.” I told Patti when I got home, “I’m done.” She grabbed my tie, pulled my face close to hers, looked me in the eye and said:

You are not quitting. I’ve given you four years away from our family to work on this degree. It’s not going to waste. And besides, you were made for this. You know that. And … YOU were the one who chose John of the Cross as your topic, so really now, what did you expect?

At that moment, I really and truly received the most intense infusion of grace, a little Pentecost, giving me courage that lasted to the very end of my degree work. In that moment, truth enveloped me in a liberating judgment, love emboldened me, and grace rushed into my core at my bride’s word. Here, and in all real friendships, Proverbs 27:17 obtains, “Iron sharpens iron, and one [spouse] sharpens another.”

At least for those who really want an answer to the question, “What is truth?”

Joseph the Silent laborer


[re-post from 2016. Sorry I can’t write new ones. Soon!]

I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifices to all ecstasies. — Saint Thérèse

It’s St. Joseph the Worker’s Feast today. Joseph the Silent laborer, who is loathe to draw attention to himself. Joseph is all about FAMILY, forget about me I love you.

In our culture that cultivates and celebrates attention starved people, desperate to be liked, noticed, applauded, affirmed, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the hidden happiness of a self-forgetful life of quiet and unsung work done for God’s honor and others’ welfare.

There’s a priest in Louisiana my wife and I know who, to me, embodies Joseph’s homely holiness. Even as he’s quirky and sometimes cantankerous, he’s tireless, generous, dedicated to lifting up and not bringing down. And he’s all about things not being about him, but so naturally, never awkwardly. He makes my wife’s cool description of humility real, “Humility is being sufficiently unaware of yourself to be able to listen to others.”

He also embodies a favorite saying by my grandfather (in one of its many declensions), “The sign of a great man is not that you leave his presence thinking much of him, but better of yourself.” Like the Providence of God, greatness prefers anonymous, all-about-others do-gooding.

Once when I told this priest how much I appreciated his ready warm greeting, he shared Mother Teresa’s “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” He added, “Most people carry heavy burdens. Life’s about lightening burdens, not adding them.”

When I first came across an article by Dennis Prager on “doing justice” in the Jewish Talmud, I immediately made a copy for him, underlining these words:

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

In the margin, I wrote: “That’s you, Father.”

Jesus, I trust in you

Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.

[a re-post from 2015]

My spiritual director said to me last weekend,

You’re trying to over-determine the way God will respond to your requests. No room for mystery, no room for trust. And you set yourself up for disappointment and discouragement by doing that. You need to practice submitting your good ideas to God, and then rest in knowing He’s heard you as a Father, and will take your ideas into serious consideration. Then that’s all. Let go. It’s why the Our Father begins with 3 petitions consenting to God: do your thing! Only then we get on to the specifics of what we seek.

It was a very powerful insight for me in the moment.

I have become more and more convinced that the real end-game of prayer is indeed surrender, is unconditional consent to God’s providential plan. Of course, surrender does not preclude, but includes our own active contributions to that plan, as Jesus commands us to ask, seek and knock for good things from the Father (Matt. 7:7). Jesus did this in Gethsemane, asking the Father to be spared the Passion, only to then surrender His petition to the Father’s will (Matt 26:36-42). In the final analysis, we will only find peace when we submit our proposals to His final judgment.

As Dante said so succinctly, “In His will, our peace.” The act of surrender is the truest litmus of our faith: Is God our Father, or is He not? St. Faustina’s “Jesus, I trust in you” is really another way of saying, “Jesus, I trust the Father, as you did.”

Everything is about the Father. E.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.

I recently read a biography of Fr Walter Ciszek, a Polish-American Jesuit priest who conducted clandestine missionary work in the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1963. He spent 15 years of hard labor in a Gulag, after spending 5 years in Moscow’s infamous Lubianka prison. Lubianka wore him down with constant hunger, isolation and all-night interrogations. After a year of being brutalized, drugged, threatened with death, Fr. Ciszek did what he had been sure he would never do: He signed papers that admitted he had been spying for the Vatican.

After this, he suffered searing shame and guilt for being “nowhere near the man I thought I was.” He said,

I had asked for God’s help, but had really believed in my ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge. I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of men. I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test—and I had failed.

As the interrogations continued, he fell into despair. It was only then, he said, that he finally surrendered himself. He said, “I was now able to see the grace God had been offering me all my life.” He continued,

I knew that I must abandon myself completely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it. I can only describe the experience as a sense of letting go, giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life. It is all too simply said, yet that one decision has affected every subsequent moment of my life. I have to call it a conversion. It was at once a death and a resurrection.

Saved by a Stick

Some people are called to be a good sailor. Some people have a calling to be a good tiller of the land. Some people are called to be a good friend. You have to be the best at whatever you are called at. Whatever you do. It’s about confidence, not arrogance. — Bob Dillon

My grandfather wrote me in a letter, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. It’s not what you make, it’s who you become in the making. It’s not about getting recognized for what you’ve done, it’s recognizing what you’ve done you did for the right reason. And the right reason is always the Almighty and your fellow man. The rest is incidental.”

“Being best at it” is to strive to do each thing you do with full intention, as if each action were the first, last and only thing you will ever do. Living as if now was all your legacy would be in time, all your name would signify in eternity. To treat each encounter as defining, each next as a new beginning, as the whole present in the part. For God does not treat any moment as insignificant, since He is wholly present to each moment, loving with equally infinite intensity.

Back when my daughter Catherine was 4 years old, I came home from work one day feeling defeated and tired, and not prepared to patiently interact with my children. I wanted to stare at a blank wall that did not talk back, and sip a Blue Moon.

As I got out of my car and started toward the front door, I noticed Catherine was playing over by the tree line. When she caught sight of me, she ran excitedly toward me with a stick in hand and shouted, “Daddy look! A stick! A stick!” I mumbled something and hoped she’d go back to her solitary play. But she persisted, “No! No! Look at the stick!” As I looked, she pointed to little red mites running in and out of the cracks in the stick. She pulled me with her to the ground, and we blanked the whole world out to examine this microcosm together.

In a matter of seconds my whole disposition changed, the present presided over both past and future, and my regrets and worries were forgotten amid the lilies of her field.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. — Isaiah 11:6

In that moment, Catherine’s love seized me, and I was prepared to worthily receive the sacrament of the present moment. It is in such moments that the Kingdom Come, comes. More than anyone in the world, my children have taught me how to discover my vocation in the moment. “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).


Messy Magnanimity

God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions. ― Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Why? I, for one, would prefer ideas. But ideas alone remain in the head, allowing us to become spectators of Truth. Acquiring Truth through the brambles of “pains and contradictions” frees us to choose it or reject it, to pay a price for it and so revere it and love it, whence Truth enters the heart. There knowledge gained transforms, metabolizing ideas into wisdom and virtue, making us not simply knowledgeable but magnanimous, “great souled.”

A friend of mine was going through a really rough patch in work, and spoke to his Confessor about his woes. The priest gave him advice that, he said, was bitter to the taste, but sweet in giving him a sense of freedom. I wrote my own thoughts that night in my journal, reflecting on the priest’s advice. Here’s part of what I said:

You have a real choice to discern. Learn to embrace the cross in your work as a path to sanctity, and stop kicking against the goads, or humbly acknowledge your limits and try to find another job. But you can’t have it both ways. To live in a constant state of dissatisfaction, complaining endlessly that God is not showing you His will is a dead end you’ll never exit from.

If you choose to leave, know the cross awaits you wherever you go next. Have no illusions. But also know He is there bearing that cross already for you. Realize also that if you choose to stay and embrace the cross you shoulder now, while it won’t necessarily make things any easier, it will make you a saint. The key to both? Knowing His will is always found entirely present in every moment, regardless. We’re only tasked with embracing the cross in trust and love, not with resolving every problem.

And “embrace” doesn’t mean you just grit your teeth and bear it Stoically, stupidly. It means finding grace in each moment, and then using your graced wit to discover ways of creatively and courageously maximizing the good and minimizing evil. Then each Sunday, unload on the Altar the whole unruly, stinky batch of dough you’ve kneaded, and give a hearty consent for its consecration by the Spirit in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mess.

Then meditate when you receive Holy Communion on the truth that, in that consecrated Host, you’ve already received the whole Answer to your every cry and plea…