I like to contemplate the holiness present

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. — Pope Francis

Yes, this is it. Descriptions of the truest soul of holiness, charity. Charity, which is the love with which God loved us in Christ. Holiness is when our love synthesizes, harmonizes, mixes, fuses with God’s love, and then overflows our cup into unsung acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holiness is what St. Thérèse manifested when she said, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.” Because ecstasy, from ek histanai, means “to stand out of yourself.” Get out of yourself, over yourself, and into God and your neighbor.

My wife loves to say that for her the premier sign of holiness in others is found in people who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning they don’t have self knowledge, but that when you are with them, things don’t turn back on them but on others. The exude, in a disarmingly natural way, other-centered love. The relationship of such unaware saints with God is wholly consumed with the welfare of others. Like St. Paul: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Or like the Lord Himself who, rapt in an ecstatic prayer with His Father in John 17, thinks only of us.

Us.

What a magnificent thing that God’s love, epitomized in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, is not competitive. Rather, God delights most when we make our love for Him all about the people around us. Including our parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, enemies. Especially our enemies. God’s favorite way of being loved is through the enemy, the one we find most disagreeable, irritating, objectionable, repulsive. As God the Father said to St. Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you.

This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So 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.

May we take one step today toward this holiness, which the revolution of love.

Sigrid, Raw

[had this unfinished post in my drafts. i recall it was fun to write. felt inspired to post. be back next weekend.]

If I show I’m fragile
Would you go ahead and find somebody else?
And if I act too tough, know that I care ’bout you
I’m honest, no offense

No, I could never fake it
Like players always playing
Arrest me if I hurt you
But no apologies for being me

I am now a huge Sigrid fan, thanks to my daughter who introduced me to her last week. Sigrid is a Norwegian singer and songwriter who just hit the pop scene last year.

I like her because she is, as Maria says it, “authentic, honest and quirky.” Her music is not hyper-produced, the lyrics are plain, direct and reflective, and her look is natural. I hope she retains all of that.

I especially liked the song Raw, because it made me think of my wife. Patti, for those who know her, pulls no punches. What you see is what you get. She is truthful in the extreme, which is what I have always loved most about her. Whether it’s pointing out that I need to take a second shower before giving an evening lecture, calling me on the carpet for some inconsistency, or grabbing me by the tie and saying (when she saw I was filling my early morning prayer time with work), “I need you to be a man of prayer!” — she is, for me, grace in my face.

Patti is truthiness with lipstick and high heels. Once when I praised her for this quality, she said, “Well, when we got married I did say ‘I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad!'”

But the greatest part of her honesty is that it goes both ways — she welcomes it as much as she offers it. And that is something I find very rare in life, people who invite and welcome honest feedback. She will often say, “You don’t need to protect my feelings. I need to hear your perspective.”

But at the bottom of all such radical honesty — nakedness before the other — is unconditional trust. There can be no real honesty if you don’t have that in a relationship, don’t have the mutual understanding, guarded by love, sealed by a promise that the other person will never use your weaknesses against you; will never intend you harm; will never betray you; will never leave you, no matter what. Only when love is steeled by such a promise can you really get down and dirty, dig deep, be wholly free to be yourself and allow the other to be the same.

Of course, even with the best of intentions, without ill will, we do hurt each other. Reality. But even here the commitment to honesty rescues us, as I know I can admit my failure, my sin against her with unvarnished honesty and she will receive that and forgive me. Will give forgiveness which is not owed or demanded, but freely given to an unworthy recipient.

And let me say that kind of forgiveness brings you to your knees. Breaks your stony heart. Calls you out of your mediocrity toward the better. Honest love is a costly love, is a paschal love “caught up into divine love [that] leads the spouses to God with powerful effect.”*

So yes, it’s true. She, I just want to be raw.

*Gaudium et Spes #48

Break

I am taking a 2 week break from posting to focus on family and other important commitments I have to complete. The April 14th weekend I will resume.

I am grateful for all of the recent comments on my posts. I had written most of those while I was on a personal retreat a while ago — which is always my best space for writing. But I have no more in the docket, and have much pressing these days on me.

May the Risen Lord be with you these days of Octave and Easter joy. May the mercy of God inundate your life.

A theology of failure

“Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross. Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.” — Pope Francis

A priest I have known for a number of years, who is in his 80’s, shared with me his “theology of failure.”

He served in Latin America for many years among the poor and has endured some exceedingly difficult hardships throughout his life. Yet, he remains a joyful, self-giving man of tireless service who said he will retire only when he is unable to function. A few weeks ago, he taught one of my classes as a guest lecturer. Later, I caught him in the hallway to express my appreciation for sharing his wisdom born of so many cycles of success and failure. Combining the insights he shared with me in the hallway, and in the class, I wrote a Neal-esque journal reflection — in his voice — that night.

Tom, what you begin to see when you have a long view of life, and are honest about things, is that most of what we do in life falls short, falls apart, falls away, is forgotten, goes unappreciated, isn’t what we expected or wanted. That could make you pessimistic and cynical, very easily.

Lots of very good people I worked with over the years, who had wonderful ideals and plans to help people, burned out because things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. And they became hard and bitter. But thank God I had a priest who helped me to see things differently when I was in Latin America. And the poor I served, who have more faith than I ever will, helped me see things differently.

It’s this. To those of us who stumble along through life doing what we can, Jesus on the cross gives hope by making failure the privileged entry point of the Kingdom of God into this world. See, when you realize you’re really nothing of yourself, that everything is in God’s hands, then you’re free to do everything with a total confidence, without being paralyzed by fear of failure, by regret or by obsession over results. And you’re not consumed by angry judgment over yours or others’ failures.

You’re joyful.

Pope Francis talks about a “revolution of tenderness,” and this is what he means. When you see this is how God works from the cross, you are gentle with yourself and others. Jesus’ response to everything falling apart around Him was forgiveness of us and total trust in the Father’s power to raise out of the rubble, a Kingdom.

With this faith, you can see that the farther something is from your control, the more important it becomes in God’s victory over evil. “Power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Failure wrapped in surrender to God’s mercy is the victory won, the Kingdom come. That will be the long view from heaven. But when you have faith, that can be your view right now.

It’s not easy, but what’s the alternative?

And let me tell you, you sleep a lot better [he laughs].

Sound of Silence

[re-post from 2017]

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Last weekend I happened on a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence by Passenger. Dang. It’s such a brilliant song, both for its lyrics and its melody, and Passanger draws out from it such depth of feeling. It was part of my childhood, and so whenever I hear it now I think of my brother’s scratchy vinyl album playing in the living room as I tinkered with my Lincoln Logs.

Though I am not entirely certain what the song’s lyrics meant to Paul Simon, they have meant different things to me at different points in my life. I’d like to share very briefly here one meaning they took on for me while I was serving at Mother Teresa’s homeless shelter and hospice in D.C., Gift of Peace, back in the early 1990’s. I’ve shared this story here before, but when I heard Michael Rosenberg sing I thought of this experience in a whole new way. I’ll paste it again here and add a few flourishes:

+ + +

I was assigned to care for a man when I started volunteering at Gift of Peace. He was in his 40’s, was originally from Tallahassee, Florida and had had a stroke while he lived on the streets. Actually, he had a stroke in midwinter, while he was sleeping in an abandoned car under a bridge suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. He was found and survived, but lost some of his fingers and toes, as well as his ability to move freely or speak intelligibly. And from what we were able to learn of his past, his was a life rife with tragedy.

The sister who paired me with him said that, in addition to the bodily care he needed, more than anything else he required my companionship. My time. My friendship. He needed me to sit with him, for lengthy periods, without any practical purpose. I needed to learn his stroke-slurred language, to talk about Tallahassee (where I had previously lived), sing songs to him, talk sports or just wheel him around. She said he had come from a world where no one listened. Where few, if any, cared.

I wrote in my journal one night, “Sr. Manorama said wants me to ‘break Heaven’s silence,’ be a ‘word of God for him.’ Damn that’s deep. Hope I can fill such a tall order. Frightened.”

I would imagine him living out in the streets, surrounded by the bustle of busy people. Yet utterly alone. Silent nights of dreamless sleep. There are so many like him in D.C., in every city and town, in homes, offices, marriages. Lazarus, passed by unnoticed, neglected, forgotten. No time or place is immune from the disease of apathy, the curse of neglect. Studdard Kennedy writes of this in the Birmingham, England of the early 1900’s:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds–and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—
the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.

And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.

When my time at Gift of Peace was complete and I was ready to leave — for good — I had to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I had planned to soft-pitch it to him with a “No worries, I’ll be back to visit” white lie. But Sister Manorama would have no part of it. I had to tell him I would not return, and how I really felt about him, or I would be like everyone else. A liar, abandoning him.

So I told him I would not be able to return. He would not look at me. He was so hurt. Angry. Disappointed.

I finally convinced him to look at me, in the eyes. Then I said what I had never said to him, “I love you.”

It was a detonation. He exploded into wailing and sobbing, heaving gasps. I was horrified. What had I done? Was my love a dagger? I tried to console him, but he would not be consoled. A Sister came over and told me it was okay to leave. She would take care of him.

I walked away, down the hall to say goodbye to Sister Manorama. I told her, “That’s exactly why I didn’t want to say that was it, the last time. See?! Terrible.” She asked me what happened. I told her. She said, “You are mistaken. Don’t you see how important that was? You told him you loved him. Who do you think has said that to him in his life after first showing him your words were true. That’s why those three words had such power, got down deep into his soul. Now he knows he’s loved by a man who knew him well. Was a friend, a brother. No one can take that from him. So, Brother Tom, go in peace.”

I still was haunted by those wailing sounds in the hallway. Go in peace? A small comfort.

Yet I saw, so differently, all my life is an opportunity to break God’s silence. To fill every silence with love, turning silence from a barren absence to a pregnant presence. Full of human and divine love.

This is why I exist: to be a divine word, a divine thought spoken into the deep wells of silence. Transubstantiating absence with Presence, non-being with Love, darkness with Light, a wailing dirge with a New Song.

“But this song only really works if everyone’s super super quiet,” listeners to the Word spoken from God’s silence.

O God, split the night in me, that others might know they are not alone.

You are with us, in the silence.

Whatever God gets into gets big

The Ancient of Days by William Blake, 1794. wikipedia.org

“Each one has his place. It matters not a whit whether it be glorious or modest. It is the plan which is grand. One is great only in occupying one’s own place within it. The most modest place is quite incomparably great, provided only that it is inhabited with faithfulness.” — Fr. Yves Congar, O.P.

I’ll never forget the janitor’s comment, “And always remember, it all matters, cuz whatever God gets into gets big. Real big.”

He had worked at a Catholic parish and grade school for decades, and was known to everyone as Mr. Jim. Never married, in his 70’s when I met him, thin as a rail, scruffy face, always smiling. Proud member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

That Monday morning, he was answering my question about the source of his permanent smile. “Real simple. Keep God right in front of you. Live right. Always do a good turn for folks you meet. Leave ’em better than you find ’em. Don’t ever complain, cuz life’s always better than you deserve. And always remember…” Yep, the “Big” quote above.

I never got to ask him what he meant by “Big,” as we were interrupted at that point by a food crisis in the school cafeteria. But its meaning seems clear. As Mary says so clearly in her Magnificat song of praise (Luke 1:46-55), God loves, loves, loves to employ the tiny, lowly, hidden to magnify His power, glory, beauty, mercy, love, and all of His other infinitely numbered attributes.

The smaller, more powerless and seemingly insignificant something or someone is in human judgment, the greater it seems to be in God’s eyes. Infinity loves the itty-bitty.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you. — Deut. 7:7-8

Which gives St. Thérèse the catholic audacity to say, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” Greatness in Christ is found in doing the smallest of things with the greatest love possible.

Whenever I happened on that parish, just the sight of Mr. Jim seized my heart with hope. Push broom in hand, working with a smile, whistling with joy, sweating with faithfulness, praying with his enormous heart. Made me want to be better.

And all around him — I could see it — a world being made new, swept up by his broom into a “vast and forever peaceful” Kingdom, bequeathed by the Most Low God to the clean of heart and poor in spirit.

To Blessed Mr. Jim.

Mission: Love

From  Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Wounded Healer:

One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man were handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do.

The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.” Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden.

After the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room.

That night an angel came to him, and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”

While versions of this story are very old, it seems the most modern of tales. Like that minister, who might have recognized the Messiah if he had raised his eyes from his Bible to look into the youth’s eyes, we are challenged to look into the eyes of the young men and women of today, who are running away from our cruel ways. Perhaps that will be enough to prevent us from handing them over to the enemy and enable us to lead them out of their hidden places into the middle of their people where they can redeem us from our fears.