To be Love

Therese playing St Joan of Arc.

I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr; as if I could never satisfy the needs of my nature without performing, for Your sake, every kind of heroic action at once. I feel as if I’d got the cour­age to be a Crusader, a Pontifical Zouave, dy­ing on the battlefield in defence of the Church. And at the same time I want to be a priest; how lovingly I’d carry You in my hands when you came down from heaven at my call; how lovingly I’d bestow You on men’s souls! And yet, with all this desire to be a priest, I’ve nothing but admiration and envy for the humility of St. Francis; I’d willingly imitate him in refusing the honour of the priesthood.

I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!

Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!” — St. Thérèse of Lisieux

There was a woman in New England who was a real mentor to me back in the late 1980’s. She was married, had four adult children and, as I recall, several grandchildren. She worked for a parish as a pastoral minister, coordinating the outreach works of the parish to the bereaved, poor, sick and elderly. She dedicated most of her own time to visiting the homebound and bringing them Holy Communion. She had such a heart of compassion and was super intelligent. We’d hold a theology discussion for hours. She also worked with the diocese in offering encouragement and prayer support to priests who were in a difficult spot — maybe feeling isolated, depressed or struggling with alcohol.

One time she and I were talking about women and priesthood. She shared with me a remarkable perspective that I wrote in my journal and will replicate here. Though I can no longer obtain her permission, I am certain she would not mind my sharing it. I’ll change my journal and call her Jean. The insight seems so basic and simple, which is why it’s so profound. I’m so grateful I journaled all these years!

Jean and I talked for almost two hours about women and priesthood. Fascinating! She said that back in the 70’s she’d gotten caught up into the woman-priest movement. She told me that she felt that seeing so many women feel the call to be priests was just too strong an evidence that God was indeed calling. But she also felt a desire to be faithful to the church’s teaching. She loves the church so much. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

But in the early 1980’s she came across “Story of a Soul” and suddenly had her whole worldview shaken. She read the part where Thérèse says she feels all of these callings in her, but feels terribly limited by her one life and feels all the tensions of frustration. Something like that. But then, Jean said, Thérèse comes to this remarkable realization that her feeling called to vocations she is not called to is really an overflow of the “more excellent way” of Love Jesus had planted in her. That her attraction to all of these callings was like a reverberation of restless Love, which is the soul and fire and compelling force of every vocation.

Jean realized, she said, that the Love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” also WANTS all things, and so includes in its scope everything. If it’s really divine Love, that is, since God’s Love is catholic. And those who feel called to a vocation they cannot live aren’t being called by God to break the system He’s set up, but to remind those who feel so-called that their REAL vocation is not “this or that,” but is EVERYTHING: to Love.

Jean said that’s the real purpose of every vocation, and wherever you find yourself, even if you’re confined to a small POW cell, you can live an infinite vocation if you Love there. Jean said she suddenly saw that if she lives Love in her life, she will in effect be living out every vocation since it is Love that pulses through the whole Body of Christ. Each member of the Body who gives him or herself over to loving in their own small plot of life unleashes God’s Love on the whole Body and so on all vocations. She said that’s why 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are back-to-back chapters. I’ll have to read them again with this in mind.

She ended our conversation by saying she realized after her epiphany that the feeling of being called to priesthood was indeed a call that, in her case, was to teach priests how to love; to support them in their call to love; and help them see, by her prayer with and for them, that Jesus loves them so much that He called them to be among His closest friends and confidants. BUT if they don’t live in that place first, they go into bad places and will never be able to fulfill their own call to be His Love beating in the heart of the Church.

What Thérèse has, I want: “O little Mother, I don’t love one thing more than another; I could not say like our holy Mother St. Teresa: ‘I die because I cannot die.’ What God prefers and chooses for me, that is what pleases me more.”

St. Thérèse, pray for us.

Remove this cup

“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” — St. Teresa of Avila

I’ve known that quote for years, but recently as I was prepping a paper on St. John of the Cross I received a new depth of insight into why answered prayer can make us cry. It’s not exactly what Teresa meant when she said it, but it was powerful for me. Dr. Denys Turner gave a lecture last year on prayer in the thought of Aquinas, and touched on this same idea. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

It’s more evident to me this go around with John that for him the highest “purpose” of prayer is to permit God a free hand to act in creation as Redeemer. More personally stated: God wants to bring about in me a new exodus, rescuing me from the inner enslavement that keeps me from the freedom he wishes for me. When I pray, just as when I receive the Holy Eucharist, I consent — “Amen” — to a new Passover, a new Exodus plundering my inner Egypt.

Why pray? To expose festering wounds to the Surgeon’s skillful care. To expose the darkness to Light. To expose lies to Truth. To expose death to the Author of Life. To expose infidelity to the Faithful One. And so on. Prayer exposes that portion of creation included in our prayer to God. Prayer brings an end to our hiding from God (Gen. 3:10; John 19:26). Prayer for myself, prayer for others. Prayer for the whole of creation to be set free. St. Isaac the Syrian: “For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

It’s also why you must pray “out of” your sin, your fear, your temptations, your desire to not do God’s will. Your cry must rise out of Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8).

The only time in the Gospels Jesus uses the very intimate Aramaic word, Abba, for his Father is when he is praying out of his darkest trial: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mk. 14:36).

No pious evasion of his terror. He asks to be spared from what he repeatedly told the disciples during his public ministry was his providential destiny (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; Jn 12:27). That’s absolutely remarkable. Jesus knew the Father was asking him to embrace the shame of the cross. But before he could fully and finally consent, Jesus had to bring that inner revulsion to the Father in a very direct way.

The inner storm of humanity: wanting God’s will to be done, but feeling the extraordinary force of fallen nature chaffing against that will. Then praying “out of” that chaffing, allowing the most violent temptations to be caught up into prayer (Heb. 4:15). Not arguing with them, consenting to them, but turning them over to God (remove this cup) and leaving the battle to him (what thou wilt).

Never attempt to dialogue, reason or argue directly with a temptation. Either reveal it to a trusted other as a confession or speak directly to God about it. Fr. Hopko says regarding overcoming temptation:

“Number one, it can be said very clearly: you can’t do it by willpower. You can’t do it by yourselves. You can’t do it by figuring things out. You don’t have the means to figure anything out, and you don’t have the power to overcome this stuff. In your fallen, corrupted condition, this is stronger than you are. Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t think you can control it. Don’t think you can find some human method by which you’re going to make yourselves intelligent, strong, holy, pure, and beautiful. It ain’t going to happen. Only Christ can conquer and win it.”

I remember many years ago I was sharing with my spiritual director a very dark temptation I was undergoing. I was terribly ashamed of it. I told him I couldn’t even articulate it directly. He said: “You must. When you’re ready, just speak it. Don’t sugar-coat the words.” I said it. He said, “Now, tell it to God.” I prayed my struggle aloud. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Tears flowed. He said: “You’re still here?” I said, “Yes.” He continued, “And God is still here. He hasn’t left you. It’s his battle. Let him have it. See, you allowed him in that place that you had walled off and excluded him from. There he is, right in the middle of that awful place of temptation. It’s not so awful now. Love is there. Light is there. Truth is there. Mercy is there. Pardon is there. The Almighty is there. Of course, he was already there, in that dark place, waiting for you. It’s called Golgotha. Keep your eyes on the cross when you feel its pull again. Don’t look at it, look at him.”

On Golgotha, God entered every human darkness, sin, injustice, despair, failure, pain — Godless places — and filled it all with his saving presence.

c. 1516. Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion”

“A sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35)


A sketch of my children by seminarian Matthew Hoffpauir

[note that the post continues past the video]

A time ago, I had a tough day that followed on some rough struggles one of my children was going through. I snuck away to the levee for a few hours to process it all, and cleared my head. Afterward, I did a voice-to-text summary of the experience that I thought I would share here. Though I am not generally a fan of oversharing deeply personal struggles in public forums, sometimes I believe doing so can be useful for others who struggle. I hope that’s the case here. It’s raw and unrefined but exactly what I felt in my guts as I finished my micro-retreat that day.

I took the Chevy to the levee and man-oh-man it was balm for my soul. In front of God, birds and maybe a turtle, I *cried* my guts out, and prayed through my tears, and you know what? I stopped crying. It really does stop. And I felt so much better. Cathartic. Washed. I rarely cry, so when I do it’s an avalanche. I was especially grateful no human was around to watch!

Here’s what came out at core. I can take work stress, financial stress, extended family stress. Lots of stressors. But my kids. When they’re in distress, it’s really really hard to handle. Suddenly makes the doable stressors un-doable. Cuts you to the core. Makes you bleed. Your kids are part of your heart, your soul. You know, when they suffer you want to scoop them up, make it all better. Like waking them from a night terror, you want to sing and rock them back to sleep. Stroke their hair. But on waking to reality you suddenly realize you can’t do that anymore. You can’t fix life’s wounds with a tender kiss, a band-aid and a fun treat. Adulthood means they must now face the darkness and shadows themselves. They have to. They need to know how to trust God and cling to Him themselves, apart from my body and voice. That is a black night of the soul for a parent: to let go. To admit in reality, and not just in a pious prayer, they’re really His; and they’re their own.

Then your morning prayer of meditation-hoping-for-contemplation suddenly gets interrupted by thoughts of your children’s welfare. Self-enriching meditation becomes pleading-prayer, all about them. All about asking God to be who His is: all about them. Who has time for ethereal contemplation when your children’s lives now rest in the balance of your pleas before the Eternal?

Hebrews 7:25: “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Parents who want nothing more than that their kids to “draw near to God” get lost in Jesus’ tireless priestly prayer: He lives to make intercession. Scripture says nowhere that Jesus contemplates the Father, but it does say that He pleads before the Father for the “children God has given me” (Heb 2:13). Intercessory prayer beautifully joins love of God and neighbor, as you are asking God to do His good things in another. Intercessory prayer helps keep your other forms of prayer from becoming too much about sating your appetite for self-gratifying spiritual goodies, and keeps prayer about acquiring in order to expend on others.

Parents must let go of their adult children and give them over to God, but the form letting-go and giving-over takes for us as people of faith is not apathy or detachment, but ceaseless intercession for them till your last breath; or theirs. And beyond. Kyrie eleison, ad infinitum…

And even more, as you face the letting-go process you realize that regretting what YOU did or did not do for them in the past only takes you into bad places. Even to despair. The past can’t be undone or redone, only learned from and forgiven. Such regret must teach you to pray as you never have, from the guts. De profundis, as psalm 130 begins. Guts prayer makes you see so clearly that it is not by ‘faith alone,’ but by ‘mercy alone’ that we are saved. Mercy — love’s touch on evil and failure — alone makes life livable, hopeful. And mercy makes despair into iron-cast humility.

Humility. Yes. There’s a toughly-tender Jersey Jewish mother I know who once said some amazing words to me I’ll never ever forget. And they came to mind today as I was heading to the levee: “We are made in weakness that we might supply for each other.” Made in weakness?! Yuck! Fell into weakness via sin, yes, but made in weakness?? An Omnipotent God who makes man in His image would never do such a thing! Power must be our natural state. Look, I’m a White Anglo Male, I hate feeling weak in front of others. Yet the truth is I feel my humanity most when I face my weakness with a trusted *other* and rely on their strength in the moment of weakness. That’s when you REALLY feel intimate with the God-with-skin-on, when your exhausted arms held up by Aaron and Hur (Ex 17:12); by Patti and Peggy; by Austin and Paul; by Sonya and Faye; by Mary and Juan…

An Omnipotent God whose terrifying omnipotence is love that risks weakness, that becomes weakness for love’s sake. Far more terrifying than destructive power is the power that awaits your free consent of surrender to enter the union of love. One conquers without, the other, within.

“Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union” (Pope Francis).

Parents enter the heights of mystical union with God mostly by praying and loving and forgiving and laboring through the thickness of family muck, the unplanned joys and heart-rending tragedies. But it’s not automatic. You’re sainted only if you choose to cling to God’s mercy in the darkest night, give thanks on the brightest days and sleeplessly give your children’s lives over to a Father whose love endures forever.

I’d trade it all for nothing, because love is the only measure that endures.

Botticelli’s “Trinity”, c. 1493

Not a Gentleman? Stay away from my daughters…

Pope Francis.

Pope Francis.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2365 says this:

St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us. I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.

Recently, a young woman I’ve known for a few years got engaged. She’s a stellar woman, strong, faith-filled and she has a solid character. I texted her later that day after hearing her good news: “I assume he’s worthy of you or you wouldn’t have said yes.” What I really meant was, he’d better be a Christian gentleman.

Having daughters has, of course, pulled out of me a very protective instinct in regard to guys. I have a funny t-shirt that my daughters, let’s say, dislike that lists the ten things a dad instinctually thinks in regard to any man who might want to date his daughter. I know guys. Guilty until proven innocent. I’ve only worn it once.

After I texted that young lady, I began to think about what I mean — concretely — by gentleman. I know John Henry Newman has a concise description [see here]. Then I thought of the men in my life whom I have tried to emulate, men who in my mind reveal the character of a gentleman. There’s a ton. I thought of my grandfather who had written these words to me before my wedding: “When Nana looked at Patti’s [my wife] face in the photo you sent, she said to me: ‘She has character. I can see it in her face. She’s a lady.’ So, Tom, to be worthy of a lady you must be a gentleman…”

I spent some time later that night writing down my thoughts, thinking of my daughters’ future. My flow’s not great, my thoughts are not so organized, lots is left out, but here’s what came to mind that night. Sorry for the length!

I don’t want my daughters to date or marry just “guys,” but gentlemen. I want my sons to be gentlemen. I want to be a gentleman. What’s a gentleman? Well, here’s what Patti’s taught me over the last 28 years I’ve known her. The man she challenges me to become is a man with redeemed masculinity, which is the theological shorthand for “Gentleman.” As to what it looks like, I’ve learned mostly from men in my life who have exemplified, or marred, this high calling. For the witness and influence of those men in my life, I am forever grateful to God (Prov. 27:17).

I aspire to be this Christian Gentleman. What is he like?

He’s responsible, self-respecting and God fearing. Responsible for his own decisions, responsible with his commitments. Self-respecting because he’s truth-seeking, authentic, not duplicitous; what you see is what you get. God fearing, as he knows justice makes fierce demands on him; demands that effectively reign in his unruly passions so that he can live, like St. Joseph, as a Just Man. God-fear also makes him meek, which means not “weakness” but strength harnessed for good. Gentle-men are gentle when they employ their strength. The meek are also humble, which makes them courageous in standing for the right thing, ready to take the hits that come when doing the right thing. He’s also humble enough to admit when he fails, accept the consequences and press on toward the better.

Gentlemen take criticism on the chin, but can also confront others when necessary. They follow through with promises, are consistent and are men of their word. They speak up for others who are unfairly wronged, and don’t join in talking trash about others. They prefer only to speak criticism to another’s face. They’re willing to sweat hard for the benefit of others. They love to work, but don’t allow their career to become an excuse for avoiding the harder work of relationships. They have a plan for life, know where they are going; or at least are committed to finding a way. They are fixers, but are willing to accept unfixable things and, yes, to just listen if that’s all she wants. Ain’t easy.

Gentlemen persevere, and base their choices not on personal comfort or ease but on what makes, for those they’re responsible for, a better world. Again, they persevere, and even if they can’t achieve the goals they set they don’t despair, but trust God will bless their sincere desire and dedicated effort to achieve them.

They control the tongue, and while their language can be salty, it is never vulgar or crass. And while their humor can be sharp, it is never cutting. Gentlemen know well that words have immense power to build and demolish, to reveal or conceal the dignity of humanity — of the woman.

Gentlemen hold women in high esteem. Not by idealizing or trivializing them, nor by conjuring twisted fantasies that suit the unredeemed elements of their masculinity, but by reverence for the unique, God-given gifts that define womanhood — the “feminine genius.” And for the wholly unique incarnation of that genius in each woman. Gentlemen know that if a woman’s gifts are augmented, they augment all that is genuinely masculine in him. The interplay between masculinity and femininity in a relationship is a source of endlessly creative tensions and equally endless reasons to laugh together. Vive la différence! Et quelle différence!

From what I see in Patti, here’s a snapshot description of the feminine genius I’ve come to revere: other-oriented; nurturing; readiness to suffer hardship for others’ benefit (compare the men of Mark 14:50 to the women of 15:40-41); intuitive; attentive to details; tender; compassionate; an astonishing memory that makes me think I have dementia. Her femininity says to me: to-be-cherished; never-use-or-exploit; I-need-stability; be-solid-in-character; risk-intimacy-trust-vulnerability; I-desire-authenticity; love-me-freely.

High bars, all. I want to reach them all.

Gentlemen are chivalrous, putting her well-being and fulfillment first. Gentlemen let ladies “go first” because that’s the nature of love; and look, guys are dense, and if somebody has to go first it should be her (Phil. 2:3-4). Not because she’s weak, but because love commands respect and putting the other first, and in general guys need that message more than girls.  An elder priest friend of mine said to me once, “One of the reasons God became a man and not a woman is because guys had screwed love up so badly, and misunderstood women’s dignity so badly, He had to show them in Person what it meant to be a man who loves like God…”

Like St. Joseph, gentlemen are guardians of a woman’s chastity, the virtue which guards the “garden of love” (cf Song of Songs 4:12), and they do this first by guarding their own. Every gentleman knows that chastity offers a singular opportunity for his heroism in her regard. He knows that by waiting until marriage he shows her he’s ready to be faithful to her for life, can exercise self-control, and if she is ever unable or unwilling to engage in sexual intimacy in marriage he will respect that without resentment and faithfully love her no matter what. A man who will not wait for sexual intimacy until marriage is no gentleman and is not worth another moment of a woman’s time.

The gentleman uses his strength to build a home around a woman’s life, enshrines her dignity and never uses his strength to harm her. Any man who threatens violence or inflicts harm, coerces with fear or intimidation is unworthy of her. Such a man is a despicable coward. A gentleman is never threatened by a woman’s strengths and gifts, but cultivates them, benefits from them and encourages them as if they were his own. He wants to see her personality blossom under his influence.

A gentleman wants to know the fissures and cracks of the woman he loves — as well as his own — and tries every day to learn how to build up the good in her life to protect what is fragile and help heal what is broken. He tries to appreciate her perspectives, wildly different as they can (and should) be from his own, and freely shares his perspectives with her. He is not afraid to be a leader and confront problems with her, when they arise, with a gentle strength that includes her strength. He wants the truth, knows how to argue with respect, seeking to understand more than to be understood.

He looks at her, speaks her name, notices her, compliments her with regularity and works mightily to show small gestures of care and love. He is worthy of her trust because every day he’s ready to die a thousand deaths to gain her heart, even as he gives her his own (Prov. 31:11).

Bloody hard. The fruit of grace begged for with regularity. But this is the way of THE Man, the Christ of the Gospels, of Ephesians 5. Christ is the exemplary Gentleman, and all who wish to take up their cross and be His disciple will also be gentlemen with Him.

When I worked at the Missionaries of Charity home and hospice for AIDS victims in D.C., there was a young woman who had been a prostitute for many years who became Catholic and received the sacraments during Mass one Sunday. She was far advanced in her illness. The Chaplain shared, after she died, that soon after receiving her First Communion she remarked: “That’s the first time a man’s ever come into my body who loved me.”


She’d met her first Gentleman, who loved her with the Redeemer’s masculinity.

Brothers, may we all be protagonists in Christ’s revolution of authentic masculinity. Certainly any prospective suitors of my daughters must be gentlemen or they will have to feel the heat of my cavalry.

Ladies, thank you for challenging us to be gentlemen. Don’t ever let us off the hook.

St. JP2, take me out: “The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine genius which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness”

Kelly Clarkson famously sang about her gentleman-husband, and her baby girl, who both helped repair the damage once done by her father…


I had a flash insight this morning during my prayer time that I felt compelled to share. It came as a blend of reflecting on today’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the new Twenty One Pilots “Cover” release (yesterday), Cancer. Here’s my morning journal entry:

True to form, this new TØP release of a cover of My Chemical Romance’s “Cancer” takes us to the margins of social existence, to the shadowy edges of life that are inhabited by pain, fear, alienation. The lyrics tell us of a young person (I’ll say it’s a woman) in the last stages of terminal cancer, wasted away by chemo. She feels the burning agony of distance that illness brings, a thirst for love that can no longer be satisfied — it seems. This is so powerfully captured by her refusal to kiss and her acknowledgment she will never marry. So much in those lyrics. I’ll let them — and the stirring rhythm and melody — speak for themselves. Your heart breaks if you’ve known someone ravaged by cancer.

Today the Church celebrates the Cross. Exalts it! The solidarity of God with human alienation — the tearing of the heart, the burning thirst for water, the terrible and unromantic curse of death. Yet into this dark and dry valley, Jesus infuses something utterly new: love (Rom. 5:5). The natural human response to pain is self-preservation, inward turning into isolation and despair. But in Christ God has torn open heaven and flooded the earth with His self-less love that turns darkness to light, death to life, fear to trust, despair to hope, self-preservation to martyrdom. As He suffered on the Cross, Jesus’ thoughts were only of others’ welfare, even when He felt abandoned by His only source of hope: the Father.

God is hyper-extreme love, so even when He is dying, emptied, abandoned, parched, dead, He loves. Eis telos, “to the end” (John 13:1).

In Baptism we were plunged into that love, made capable of it, recreated by it, filled with it, called to become it.

God has brought the margins to the center by sending the center to the margins: the healthy He sends to the sick, the strong to the weak, the rich to the poor, the housed to the homeless, the living to the dying, the knowledgeable to the ignorant, the righteous to sinners… And they are all reconciled as one Body, with co-mingled tears and joy.

The Church is a subversive cycle, undermining and destroying death itself by invading its every stronghold.

Mother Teresa once said in an interview that if God has given her health, it is not a sign of His favor toward her but a sign of His favor toward the sick. She is healthy precisely so she can use her health to care for those who are ill. The joy of acquisition is being empowered to place what I possess in service to the neighbor in need. No man is an island, and the salvation of one is effected by the whole Christ loving each member of the Body with the love-of-God-in-Christ-Crucified.

The Cross celebrates God’s beckoning of all humanity to encounter Him at the margins, amid the skulls strewn on Skull Place: Golgotha.

That’s all. Here’s the song:

Glassy Sea


Metairie Pump Station, September 4, 2016

Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Rev. 4:5-6

I have never given much thought to the meaning of this passage from Revelation, but the other day as I was finishing my daily walk-run along the levee and returning by way of the pump station, I looked down at the water and was taken by its calm sheen. It reflected the sky like glass. Suddenly I thought: that passage in Revelation [4:5-6]! I quickly spoke a stream of consciousness voice-to-text into my phone to catch my thoughts. I edited it later and added some Bible references in brackets. Here it is:

Of course! This makes so much sense of that “sea of glass” image. A glassy sea is a pacific sea, wholly still and untroubled. The storms of history have passed and the water is now able to generously reflect the beauty and majesty of the heavens with such exact precision. And as I recall from Revelation, the image of the glassy sea is juxtaposed to the Sinai-like storm that erupts from God’s celestial throne. Somewhere in Job God speaks out of the storm [38:1]. But then to Elijah He speaks through the stillness [1 Kings 19:12]. What a paradox! God is a tempest who is at once a zephyr who gives peace.

It reminds me of St. Teresa’s description of the “prayer of quiet” in which God, enthroned in the center of the soul, performs cardiac surgery as He “suspends” the faculties of the soul, disabling our white-knuckle grip on life. It’s the prayer that leaves us defenseless before God, unable to impress Him with our wonderful aspirations or genius insights — raw, unimpressive, not in control, ready to let God be God. Letting “Thy will be done” be done. It’s the prayer that allows us really know that God is in love with us, not because of our high performance; and not in spite of our low performance; but simply because we exist. God was madly in love with each of us even before we existed [Jer. 1:5]! Such “quiet” prayer, Teresa says, is our surrender to God, our accepted consent which allows Him a free hand in our deepest core. No human is worthy of that inner place. Only God. There He says: “See, I make all things new” [Rev. 21:5]. Such omnipotent tenderness, beating His omnipotent Wings to shelter us from the storm [Psalm 91:4]. Create in me a Sea of Glass, O God!

I think here of an interview I heard with a NASA scientist who studied the Shroud of Turin [the alleged burial cloth of Christ]. After spending an entire night alone with the Shroud, he remarked to reporters: “Though I’m not a religious man, I have to say that what struck me most as I looked at the Shroud through the night was the disconnect between the body of this brutally savaged man, and his face. They don’t fit. The body is lacerated, beaten and bloodied, while the face is serene. It’s like the face doesn’t belong with the body. It’s really striking.” The Christian economy of trust in God’s providential care is inscribed with and into the cross. The Carthusian motto captures this perfectly: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The Cross is steady while the world whirls” — steady because the re-creating “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” is presiding over every catastrophe in paschal mystery [James 1:17; Psalm 29:10].

In the Catholic spiritual tradition, there’s a marvelous effect of grace in the soul that all should covet: stabilitas, “stability.” Those who possess this graced state become aware of a “disconnect” between a deep inner stability and the normal turmoil that characterizes life. It is not the same as emotional tranquility, which comes and goes. It’s far deeper. It’s a grace, but it requires on our part a strenuous effort to live a good life. It’s given to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It comes when you allow the anchor of your heart to set itself firmly in the immovable Rock of Christ, so that even when all around you is shaken, within you are as calm as the sea of glass — made glassy beneath Jesus’ beautiful feet [Mark 4:39]. Dying in agony on the cross, Jesus evidenced this stability: “Into your hands I commend my spirit” [Luke 23:46].

I remember back in late 2006 I was struggling with despair over balancing my graduate studies with work and family. There was one day I really remember, right after my 100+ long dissertation draft was rejected. “Piece of shit” was the exact phrase that was used by this particular professor. I was in near-despair, ready, after 6 years of work, to quit. I told Patti [my wife] that I just couldn’t go on. I was done. I’ll never forget what happened next. She took firm hold of my necktie and looked me straight in the eye, saying with stern love: “You are not quitting. We haven’t sacrificed for all these years so you can just quit now. You know you were made for this. God asked you to do this. We need you to do this.” At that very instant I felt an infusion of inner strength that was so clearly beyond me. I knew it immediately. It never left. Inner stability infused into my quivering soul through the Sacrament of Tough Love.


It’s not the first time God has shot mystical graces into me through my wife’s fiery love and blue eyes [Rev. 15:2!]. In a moment when I was sinking into the tumultuous sea, which had stolen all my attention [Matt. 14:30], God led me to still waters through her. All would be well [Rom. 8:28].

Years ago, I was flying from Atlanta to D.C.. I was in the very last seat in the back of the plane on the starboard side. After we had reached cruising altitude, the hatch across the aisle from me suddenly unsealed and a roaring rush of air began to pass through it. I was terrified! The pilot immediately descended what seemed like 10,000 feet in a minute. As this was happening, I noticed a man sitting just down the aisle to my left reading a book without any sense of concern. It was really astonishing. And he looked just like Ernest Hemmingway. So I fixed my eyes of him and soon felt interior calm. I knew all would be well because he clearly knew something I did not — or maybe he’d had imbibed some potent spirits!.

After we landed, as I was waiting for my ride, I could not help but think of that NASA scientist’s words. Or my wife’s words. That Face on the Shroud, so untroubled. The Face I must fix my eyes on reveals an inner heart captivated by the immovable Father’s Face. How lovely that Face must be!

“God is for us a refuge and strength,
a helper close at hand, in time of distress,
so we shall not fear though the earth should rock,
though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea;
even though its waters rage and foam,
even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.” [Psalm 46:2-4]

Jesus, help me fix my eyes on you so others who rely on me can fix their eyes on me. O Spirit, Guarder of the Glassy Sea, steady my heart in His Heart…


This is a snippet from an email I sent to someone who asked me how to think about St. Paul’s praise of virginity as not being a “diss” on marriage. My response is not a systematic treatise, but simply a set of brief and free-flowing insights:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. 1 Cor. 7:32-34

While there is great beauty in the vocation to virginity’s “undivided interests” centered in the “affairs of the Lord,” there is also a great beauty in the vocation of spouses whose call to perfection is found precisely in the tangle of “divided interests,” i.e. worldly affairs and how to please one’s spouse. While consecrated celibacy-virginity beautifully witnesses to the reconciled completion of the Coming Age when God will be all in all, secular spouses, bound up in worldly affairs, bear witness to a God still-at-work in the mud. And they do this by means of their very volatile vocation of effecting in their daily lives the consecration and reconciliation of all-things-divided — effected by their love for God and neighbor in the midst of temporal, secular, worldly concerns.

Spouses, and all called by God to realize the Kingdom in the midst of worldly affairs, suffer in a singular way the awful tensions of a world-still-divided. A living martyrdom. They are the prime locus where God conquers all in this world that is still unconquered; heals all that is unhealed; redeems all that is unredeemed. They labor with profuse sweat amid the thickets of cursed thorns and thistles to cultivate soils worthy of Christ the Sower who scatters through, with and in them His Kingdom wheat. In them He sows into every portion of creation the living grains of God that will bear fruit for eternal life.

I wrote to my wife this summer while I was away for three weeks. Not too romantic in all its abstractions, but it made a point that is to me very powerful:

You’re my downfall, you’re my muse
My worst distraction, my rhythm and blues
I can’t stop singing, it’s ringing in my head for you

Among a thousand other reasons, God has given you to me to teach me how to love with a heart divided without division. You are my distraction that is all at once the overthrowing of all distraction; the song that gathers up dissonant notes into an exquisite symphony. You are for me the temple where love for God and His creation no longer divides my heart. You are a sacrament, His sacrament, my sacrament, our sacrament. You are for me the way I learn to inhabit Christ best; inhabit not God-alone, but God-and; Christ the Creator-creature; Christ the God-man; Christ the God-neighbor; Christ the Bridegroom-Bride whose very embodied Person heals all divisions, reunites all distractions, reconciles all loves by revealing to us the deepest secret of God: His human Face. Your face. Our faces. Our children’s faces. To be fully alive means to look on all these faces and see One love weaving every love into one magnificent work of art. You.