Two kinds of people you rarely meet

[re-posted from 2016]

My grandfather once wrote me a letter when I began my professional career. How grateful I am for people who make time and invest love in writing letters to me. I have long believed that most of the New Testament was written in the form of letters to remind Christians of the importance of this (lost) art.

This letter was a veritable leadership training manual, born of a long career as a business executive who was also a philosopher king. Among many things, Pop said, “There are two kinds of people you rarely meet: those who freely admit their failures as a step toward improvement and those who take time to show real interest in others. Most people expend the better part of their energy protecting themselves from criticism or finding ways to turn the attention of others toward themselves.”

The first trait, he went on to say, is the raw material of real leadership. These people gratefully receive and actively seek honest feedback from others, want to be made aware of their strengths and shortcomings so they can seek excellence. They don’t crumble beneath their faults, but are delighted to be nearer the truth of things. “Always give people the impression you want their input. Only this kind of man will attract honesty and trust from those around him. Only this kind of man will grow a character indifferent to the fickleness of the crowds.”

He also said “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” as your critics and opponents “do you the great favor” of drawing out your hidden faults and exposing your defenses effectively and efficiently. “Long ago, Socrates learned this secret from the oracle of Delphi. ‘Know thyself.’ Only the man who knows himself can lead.”

The second trait, taking time to show real interest in others, was, he said, a close companion to the first. It helps make you a constant learner, refusing to close in on your own blind spots, but instead opening out into different vantage points that will enrich your own. “Again as your final goal is to build honesty and trust, these will come only when people know you are interested in them and their ideas.” To this he also added, “listen far more than you speak, learn more than you teach. Two ears, two eyes, one mouth. The few words you do speak will be worth hearing.”

I thought of this letter yesterday as I read Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, readying for an upcoming lecture. As with my Pop’s advice, the Pope’s words apply to leadership, marriage, parenting, friendship, life.

Take time, quality time. This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right. Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say. This means cultivating an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without mental or emotional distractions. Do not be rushed, put aside all of your own needs and worries, and make space.

Rare indeed, Pop.

The great danger in this storm

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Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices. — St. Teresa of Avila

Here is a great danger I myself face during these time of church upheaval: taking my eyes off of Jesus, fixing my eyes on the storm, only then to become consumed by things other than grace.

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” — Matthew 14:28-31

A mentor of mine wrote me a lengthy letter last week to encourage me in what he imagined was a difficult time for me working in a seminary. He’s much older, has a long, wise view of things. As I often do, I take letters and then, after reading them, re-express them in my journal to make evident what I received from them. I do the same with conversations, homilies, movies, etc. After re-writing his letter, I was filled with a new resolve and focus. Thanks be to God for loving and wise mentors.

Among many things he said that I digested, he said, “During this time, my brother, double up on your prayer time if possible. Above all, keep your anchor in God. The Enemy is skilled at using such turbulent times to set an ax to our prayer as It knows well prayer alone gives free reign to God. This alone It fears.”

He also said,

… Be amazed at the willingness of public figures in the church to cast their half digested opinions to the wind with arrogance. Amid this sea of rash judgment, maintain a spirit of charity at all times. Think this: speak of and to others as did Christ in the midst of his blessed Passion. You know Christ’s charity alone is the path of unity in the church that serves as a compass guiding our quest for truth. It is to be the signature of Christian witness. Judge yourself by the standard of the cross in facing evil.

… The world outside the church is watching us very carefully. What witness have we offered them? A model of civil discourse? Where do they see the fruits of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control]? Where do they see signs of grace super-abounding among us even as sin abounds? How is our response to failure and sin different from responses uninformed by those fruits, that grace? How many converts might we imagine running to the church after witnessing in us the difference God makes in facing what is our universal human plight? Again, Christ in his blessed Passion is the difference.

… And always comport yourself with sober judgment. Take great care with every word your write or speak. In such grave times, flee innuendo, irony, sarcasm, detraction. Confess in the Sacrament all your wasted, misused words that pollute and poison the air. Sobriety of reason, courage of character and care of expression are our tactics against the Liar that craves division. Re-read 1 Peter 5:8. Too many are intoxicated by their own words, arrogant in their self-righteousness.

… fast and pray twice for all you levy judgment on, whether fairly or unfairly. On second thought, thrice for all you judge unfairly. But pray seven times for the victims of these dark days.

… Above all things, keep in mind this is to be our final end, our ultimate criterion, the only witness worthy of the name Christian: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In these days, who would say this of us?

The letter concluded with St. Teresa’s prayer above. May we allow ourselves to be consumed by grace alone, so that the world might then also be…

“Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15)

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Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. — Second Vatican Council

Every married couple is called to transforming union with God as a couple.

The heart of the bond of marriage teems with divine fire, as it is “what God has joined” (Matt. 19:6). From the moment the couple’s free consent is exchanged in the marital promises, God’s immediate act of joining unrelentingly commences as a sustained, constant, permanent, dynamically erupting in each new moment of married life, until death dissolves the nuptial bond.

Between husband and wife, God acts as a centripetal force, as His unity is now theirs. The three-in-one infinite dynamism of God, the two-in-one infinite dynamism of Christ’s human and divine natures, and the two-in-one dynamism of Christ’s covenant bond with the Church are sacramentally unleashed all at once in the married couple. The rest of their lives are spent recovering from the impact of these three mysteries that are called to embody as two-in-one flesh.

St. John Paul II remarkably described Christian marriage’s dynamism as “itself a liturgical action glorifying God in Jesus Christ and in the Church.” Mind blowing! My wife and I at every moment are invited to be con-celebrants of a ceaseless nuptial “liturgy” — liturgy here being defined as the full activation of the three mysteries in service to redeeming the cosmos.

In us, Patti and Tom, God longs, loves, desires to be given full freedom to do His work of joining, of stitching together, of reconciling, of uniting heaven and earth in, with and through us. Every tiny act of love-saturated synergy between us unleashes on creation the full power of the crucified Bridegroom of humanity.

Supine.

Our bond exists to permit God to sweep all things up into the eternal wedding feast of the slain Lamb and so heal a fractured world.

In light of that, Cardinal Arinze said to me in 2010 after I asked him how I could be more effective at my ministry as a teacher in the Church, “You want to save the world? Love your wife. Love your children. Everything else is a distraction.”

The married couple’s mysticism is always a nuptial mysticism. Husband and wife, precisely as oned, are “caught up” into the triple white-hot core of Mystery: the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union and the Christ-Church covenant bond. Their journey to God is now no longer possible solely as individuals, but only as a couple. To seek escape from that is to seek union with God apart from the covenant demands of love. Their journey to union with God can no longer be thought of, acted on, sought apart from their spouse. Even if the spouse of a believer has no faith, the vocation remains exactly the same, or better, is intensified in its cruciform redemptive character:

For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. — 1 Cor. 7:14

My primary Way to God is my wife. Period. No other aspect of my life, work, relationships, religious activities rivals or surpasses her in importance. If I am saved, I am saved primarily by how I love God in relation to my wife, and how I love my wife in relation to God. If am saved by how I love my children, it is only in relation to how in parenting I have loved my wife. Love for my parents, friends, co-workers are saving only in right-relation to my wife. God’s joining makes Patti, at every moment, my vocational axis, my magnetic pole.

Apt it is that St. Paul (Eph. 5:21-33) chose to describe this radical vocation vision of marriage in terms of the love manifest on Golgotha. Nowhere is the work of repairing a shattered world said to be easy or breezy. East of Eden, the way home is narrow, messy and hard.

There is a man who lives not far from our home, whose wife is completely disabled, bedridden. He has dedicated his life to full-time caring for her. It’s just stunning, as all such things are. Once when I saw him in a local supermarket, we chatted about various things. Then I asked him how his wife was. After filling me in on a few details, he said, with the starkest sincerity, “She’s my life. It’s why wife and life rhyme, I think.” He chuckled.

I whispered under my breath, “Even a measure of that for me, Lord, please.”

His life, her life, their life, divine life. One life. One love. Forever and ever. Amen.

“What is your genius?”

Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered – either by themselves or by others. – Mark Twain

“What is your genius?”

My grandfather asked me this one time when I was in junior high. Quoting Twain to me (which he loved to do), he continued, “everyone has a genius in them. A part of them that’s fitted to unlock some secret in the world for the rest of us. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule.” “So,” he pressed me, “what is it that makes you feel energized, determined, resolved?” I said, “Exploring nature.”

I remember it sounding lame to me as I said it, like it was too vague. Yet he said, “Good, then find a way to do that the rest of your life and be relentlessly single-minded.” Unquestionably, that day a seed of confidence was planted, long to lay dormant. Which is why I remember it so clearly.

He then said, “Mine was unlocking the potential in men for greatness and success. I can see the genius of others and where to put it to work.” Indeed, he went into business, becoming an exemplary leader dedicated to unlocking greatness in a company and in each person he worked alongside.

I can testify to his genius in my life.

I myself went on to study meteorology, but still retained my other “natural” childhood passions — entomology, ornithology, oceanography, cosmology and landscape design. Yet, thirty-eight years after our conversation, Pop, here I sit at my desk as a theologian.

Yet again, I am convinced his advice to me still holds true. Even if my passions were never developed by the discipline of scientific rigor, my innate fascination with the natural world has served as a primary fuel for my theological vocation. For me, the poetry of Psalm 19 dominates my vision,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech,
and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

I would also add that my fascination has retained its (for lack of a better expression) childhood character, as it remains principally a contemplative posture, an aesthetic quest driven by the surprising beauty that is the world. This vantage permits me to see around me a vast, so to speak, Burning Bush through which God, like an infinitely giddy child, gives away in fits of explosive joy all His best kept secrets.

I have always imagined the Exodus and the Resurrection of Jesus this way. a surprising explosion of joy erupting into a joyless space. Or an eternal game of hide and seek that injects into dark human tragedy, bright divine comedy.

Or so it seems to me.

May each of us place our genius in service to the appearing of God.

Feel truly **responsible** before the bread that gives life to the world

A priest friend of mine texted me this quote yesterday,

I read this from a homily on this Sunday’s reading by Oscar Romero, whom I’m becoming more convinced was fruit of Vatican II truly lived out: “Jesus, the Eternal Priest, celebrated the first Mass and shared communion with his Apostles but then told his followers: Do this in my memory. Thus the priesthood came into existence and the priests were entrusted with maintaining the Eucharist. This is our principal mission, but we must give the Eucharist its **fullest meaning**. This means that we do not simply distribute the hosts but must understand what it means to **redeem** people, to **save** people so that when they come to communion they feel as though they have truly been **developed**. It is for this reason that we insist that the sacraments must be celebrated with a greater awareness and that no one should come to communion unless they feel truly **responsible** before the bread that gives life to the world.”

This priest friend works with people who live on the edge of life, on the margins of society. They are people who more often than not were born into desperate situations and have tried to cobble together a life out of the chaotic rubble around them.

He and I met in a coffee shop not long ago and talked for a long time about his ministry. Near the end of the conversation, I told him about a course I am teaching this Fall on theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering, and how priests can minister in a redemptive manner to the suffering by bringing the power of the Cross to bear in their lives. I said, “The motto of the course is the last petition of the Our Father, ‘deliver us from evil.'”

He paused, seemed a bit surprised and was clearly moved by something I’d said. “My word,” he said, “that phrase is remarkable. It’s exactly what I hope for [named a man he was working with].”

We ended our conversation. As I drove home I thought on our exchange, and on those words from the Lord’s Prayer. They contain within them, in compressed form, all of the lamentations, all of the pained and desperate cries of humanity to Heaven, cries that are woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. I thought of those remarkable words of Exodus 3:7-8,

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…”

I have observed, heard, know. I have come down to deliver them. Running down the ages to pick us off the ground.

That is the exodus from Egypt, the Passover of the Lord. That is the Incarnation and the Cross, the God who became a condemned slave to rescue us slaves from our plight. That is the Eucharist, the Passover meal, the Slave’s self-offering to deliver us from evil, from the Evil One.

So when we eat the torn Flesh and drink the spilled Blood of the Deliverer, we receive our rescue and we pledge — Body of Christ. Amen. Blood of Christ. Amen. — to become His rescue to those enslaved around us. To live for the life of the world.

Like my priest friend, who loves these broken, spilled children of God so well.

Thanks, Mom and Dad!


A simple post today.

Today is my birthday. I mention that not to attract good wishes (though prayers are welcome!), but to say that today is another day that reminds me of the gap left in the world after my father’s death.

Why?

Well, sometime in the 1990’s my dad said to me on my birthday, with his characteristic chuckle, “Happy birthday, son! But really, shouldn’t this day be about you thanking me and your mother for giving you a birthday, right?!”

We laughed hard. But after that, I did precisely that. I made my annual birthday celebration a day of gratitude to them for giving me life, for co-creating me with God. Especially as my mom was in her 40’s!

I have written often on gratitude, on the beauty of the “it would have been enough” mentality that acknowledges every moment we live as more than we deserve. Simply to exist is sheer gift. To exist is itself sufficient reason for unending gratitude. Asking “why something rather than nothing” supplies us with sufficient cause for gawking wonder and shapes our lives into one giant “THANK YOU!”

But, my God, to confess in addition that God has prepared an eternity of well-being for us out of sheer love?

Total mind shut-down.

My impulse early this morning to call dad with the “thank you call” was succeeded by a sense of grief. And then by a prayer. In fact, I couldn’t help but pray the prayer I’d heard countless times in his small Orthodox Church all those Sundays I attended with him…

It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee,
to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee,
and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion.
For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible,
incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same,
Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.
Thou it was who brought us from nonexistence into being,
and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again,
and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst
brought us up to heaven, and hadst endowed us
with Thy Kingdom which is to come.
For all these things we give thanks to Thee,
and to Thine only-begotten Son, and to Thy Holy Spirit,
for all things of which we know and of which we know not,
whether manifest or unseen, and we thank Thee for this Liturgy
which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands,
though there stand by Thee thousands of archangels
and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim,
six- winged, many-eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their pinions
Singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth!
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!

People around me as vocations from God

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I received a handwritten note from someone in the mail the other day thanking me for a talk I gave quite a long time ago. What a beautiful act of kindness that is! In part, it read,

…what changed the most for me was the way I looked at difficult people and situations in my life. Until your talk I’d really never thought of the people around me as “vocations” from God. I think of myself when I think of my vocation, not of other people. And I guess only thought of religious things as vocational not the normal daily stuff or the regular people around me as God pulling me out of myself, as you said it.

I asked God to help me see the world this way the night you spoke at our men’s group because it sounded like such a beautiful way to look at things. I believe he gave it to me since from then on I began to notice a spark inside me whenever people would irritate or challenge me in some way. Before I just grumbled at best. The voice inside seemed to be saying “be MY patience, be MY kindness, be MY honesty, be MY smile” to this or that person. It was crazy!

Like I could see God was not just asking me to do these things, you know be nice or charitable. But that he was trying to make me into a kind of person who does these things.

This has changed the bottom line for me. That killer quote from St. John of the Cross sledge hammered the point home. Thanks for letting me know where to find it. It got printed immediately and is a keeper in my prayer book…

Here was the section of my talk he referred to:

Imagine St. John speaking these words into your life – no, it’s not a “monastery” you’re in, but wherever you find yourself, hear the same call from God coming to you:

To practice the second counsel, which concerns mortification, and profit by it, you should engrave this truth on your heart. And it is that you have not come to the monastery for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building.

Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.

You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter the religious life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven.

If this was not your reason for entering the religious state, you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

Holiness, holiness
Is what I long for
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness
Is what You want from me

Faithfulness, faithfulness
Is what I long for
Faithfulness is what I need
Yes, it is – spoken
Faithfulness, faithfulness
Is what You want from me

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind transform it
Take my will conform it
To Yours, to Yours, oh Lord

Brokenness, brokenness
Is what I long for
Brokenness is what I need
Brokenness, brokenness
Is what You want from me

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind transform it
Take my will conform it
To Yours, to Yours, oh Lord

So take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To Yours, to Yours, oh Lord

Holiness, holiness
Is what I long for
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness
Is what You want from me