Paint my life beautiful, O Lord

There is a quote from St. John of the Cross that I have referenced here many times over the years, and I’d like to reference it again today.

Over the last ten years, I have many times offered it to people who have come to me for advice about a difficult set of circumstances in their life. For me, it offers a universally applicable insight for those who are seeking to define their lives as disciples of Jesus, desirous to abandon themselves entirely to the His will, but believing they face seemingly innumerable and insuperable obstacles along the way. “If only,” we say, “this person or that circumstance were not there, then I could really advance in my life of faith; grow in prayer; trust in God; forgive my father; love my spouse.”

I recall once using the “if only” argument with my very first spiritual director, saying that “if only I had not experienced X and Y, I’d be so much better off and able to do what God is asking of me.” He responded (thank God for journals that preserve such wisdom!):

But don’t you see that your ‘if onlys’ are rejecting the precise shape of the cross Jesus is offering you now. If you simply accept what is, you can truly say, “I have been crucified with Christ” (cf. Gal 2:20). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced his supreme ‘if only’ temptation, but he triumphed over it by accepting the gnarled wood of the cross. From the cross and the grave, joined to his obedience, love, trust, surrender to the Father, came the re-creation of all things. Jesus turns ‘If only I didn’t have this cross’ into ‘only if you take up your cross and follow me…’  You don’t become a saint by constantly seeking freedom from all of your uncomfortable constraints and irritations. As with any good work of art, edges and limits give life its beautiful form. And holiness is all about the right edges and the right form. Think: grace transforms, conforms, reforms, informs our life with the form of Christ’s cross. Your ‘if onlys’ are the hemmed in frame within which God can paint his masterpiece — you! You’ll become holy by allowing God to frame your life, cut your edges and paint away. Even in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz, Maximillian Kolbe was able to create a work of art the church later canonized.

But as not all hardships and sufferings are willed by God for our life, he taught me to discern which were which (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). “Much of discernment,” he said, “is the art of discerning limits; of judging what the proper limits are that are needed to protect your primary vocational commitments. And when you face trials and hardships, you need to learn your limits. That’s one of the great gifts of life’s crosses, they expose our weaknesses and limits. It’s what I think, in part, Jesus means when he said to St. Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient; for power is made perfect in weakness.’ Power is made perfect because in our exposed weaknesses — our limits, exposed by trials — we learn the what are the delimiting borders of the ‘holy land’ within which we are to live out God’s will. The river runs swift and powerful and clean because it has sharp edges that define it. Without them, your life diffuses out into a murky swamp filled with deadly and poisonous creatures.”

Having worked as a chaplain with Alcoholics Anonymous, he would frequently refer to the Reinhold Neibuhr prayer to help me sort through which hardships in my life I should seek freedom from and which I had to make peace with:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

“That serenity,” he commented, “is what St. Ignatius called ‘holy indifference.’ You want God to help you learn to not simply be resigned to, but to embrace your life’s limitations. If you learn to embrace, nothing will touch you — neither praise nor criticism, success or failure, because you know what you are.”

An even deeper transformation of mindset, though, came to me when years later I discovered this quote from St. John in his Counsels to Religious as I was preparing for my dissertation research. I immediately copied and framed it, bracketing his specific references to “monastic life” so that, on any given day, I would remember to replace “monastery” or “religious life” with my job, my marriage and family life, my parish, and so on. It has allowed me to grow in a vision of every space and time in my life as a potential “theater of redemption” within which God can forms me to be a man “worthy of heaven.” It allows me to see more clearly that, in the words of St. Teresa, “all the way to heaven is heaven,” if I can see God’s hand at work in every detail of life.

My hope is that one day I won’t simply believe this to be true, but I will come to see the world this way. May it be so for us all.

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.

Forgiving and being forgiven, Part II

Fr. Tom Hopko, continued…

I already quoted John Climacus who said, “Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t pick it up. Don’t engage it.” That would be a technical term, because the holy Fathers teach us that when we have these predispositions and we have these temptations, sometimes they’re called “provocation”:prosvoloi, but provocations come. Then what we must never do is engage them. We have to flee from them to God and not engage them. And there’s even a technical term for that in the Greek writing, The Philokalia writing. It’s called “syndiasmos.” They call it “coupling” or “joining.” If you join it, if you couple with it, if you accept it, if you let it into you, and certainly if you nurture and cultivate it, if you keep sitting there watching the stupid TV program or the stupid computer or you keep drinking the drink or something, or taking the drug, then of course you just become impassioned and you become possessed and you become enslaved.

But the warfare is all about not taking the first drink, so to speak. And sometimes, we used to say at St. Vladimir’s when I worked there, the same way an alcoholic cannot take the first drink, a Christian cannot take the first think. You can’t take the first thought. You can’t engage the thought. You let it go; you let it go; you let it go again. You let it go again and again. As the recovery movement says, “You let go and you let God.” You let go of that and you turn to God, but you do not couple, because if you join and couple with it, if you have syndiasmos, then you have what the holy Fathers call “synkatathesis” which is assent. You actually give assent to it. You not only do not resist it, but you assent [to] it. You affirm it. You receive it. You nuture it. You act out on it. And every time you act out on it, you give it more power and more strength.

St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.

And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.

What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.

But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.

But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.

St. Silouan said you know the Holy Spirit is in you if you’re a brave fighter. If you hate your sin and struggle against it. And when you do that, it’s a long battle and you’re not going to be victorious in two days.

I heard once a bishop tell some young people that if they had firm resolve, they could come to dispassion and quiet and peace in one month. I frankly don’t believe that. I think the bishop was wrong. Sometimes it’s a lifetime. But you should never say or put a timetable on it. Even [in] the 12-step program, you learn that you can’t do that. You’ve got to say, “Just for this minute. Just for this day. Just for this time.” Just with this breath, I’m not going to engage that memory. I’m not going to engage that feeling. I’m not going to engage that thought. I’m not going to surrender to it. I’m not going to act out on it.

But I can’t do it by myself, so I’m going to flee to the grace of God. I’m going to read the Scripture. I’m going to read the saints. I’m going to read an Akathistos. I’m going to say a prayer. I’m going to walk around. I’m going to get occupied in work. I’m going to care for some sick person. I’m going to do those things that keep the thoughts, the feelings, and the memories from crushing me. And then I’m going to beg God, “Please don’t let me choose them. Please don’t let me actually will to engage them, affirm them, and to go where they are thriving and where they are destroying people.”

And of course, that means we’ve got to cut off relations with certain people. We just can’t be—and St. Paul said this: “If you go into bad company, you’re going to end up with bad morality and bad behavior, and you’re going to be crushed.” And it’s no sin simply to say, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just can’t hang out with you, because if I do, I’m going to be poisoned by your own darkness and your own sin.”

So it’s violent. And the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent person takes it by force.” He said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off. Better to enter the kingdom with one hand than to perish with two. If your eyes offend you, pluck them out.” Now, of course, this was not meant to be literally taken. You don’t take a knife, and—people who are very troubled, they sometimes cut themselves and so on. This is not—this is of the devil. But spiritually, with the sword of the Lord, to cut off all that is evil, all this gangrenous, all this poison, to take the medicine, the pharmakon that is the antidote to the evil poison in our system. We have to do that.

But we have to do that firmly, gently, not hysterically, not with panic. We do it one step at a time. We do it by [being] faithful in the little things. And the most important point for today’s meditation: There’s only one way we can do it, and that is by cutting it off when it first comes. And that’s how the Fathers, like Nilus of Sinai and Evagoras and others, interpreted that line in the psalm, “On the Waters of Babylon”: “Blessed are they who smash your little ones on the rocks. Alleluia.” Because they say if we don’t smash the passions and temptations and thoughts and memories when they’re still little, when they first come, then they will grow up and they will kill us.

You might even say, following the Fathers, like Porphyrios, don’t even try to smash them. Just run away from them. Flee to God. Don’t engage them at all. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about not letting the poison in. It’s all about not engaging the vision, the image, the fantasy, the memory, the imagination, the thought. The cause of it all are logismoi: thoughts, feelings, fantasies, imaginations, provocations. But we can only be victorious when, by the grace of God and by faith in God and by the Holy Spirit, we do not engage them at all. The minute we engage them at all, we’re lost. Sooner or later, we can fight, we can battle, we can struggle, but they’ve got us. So the key is: know that they’re there. Let them babble and buzz all they want, but don’t engage them. Don’t engage them.

Unite the mind and the heart and call upon the Lord and flee to him. And beg for grace. It’s not going to be magic. It’s not always going to work, but this is the only way it does work when it does work. And as they say in the 12-step program when they—you know, sex addiction and food addiction and drug addiction and alcohol addiction—“It works if you work it, so work it. You’re worth it.” But what is the working? The working is to know that there is a power greater than ourselves. There is God Almighty; there is grace.

We can’t do it, but what is impossible with human beings is possible with God. And it’s impossible even not to engage and to join and to assent to all those evil thoughts, memories, and feelings that assail us day and night. With God, all things are possible. And so, it is possible not to live without these thoughts, memories, and feelings, but it is possible not to allow them, by God’s grace, to destroy and to crush us and, ultimately, even to kill us. There is a victory. It belongs to Christ. It’s given to us. We have to plug into it. And we do that by faith and grace in God, and by an unseen warfare, to take every thought captive for the sake of Christ and by Christ.

And not to engage any thought, memory, or feeling that is destructive. In fact, some of the Fathers say that we shouldn’t even engage the good ones, because we can be deceived. It’s better simply to be calling upon the name of the Lord and seeking the light without actually getting into many of these things.

Forgiving and being forgiven, Part I


The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. — Henry David Thoreau

I went to Confession to a priest, and he told me a story that touched me deeply. I will not share the details of his story, but the insights I received, along with his subsequent advice, made me realize how deep and difficult forgiving others can be. And it made me fall in love yet again with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

He said, “I am 85 years old, and every day, after more than 65 years, I have to forgive again my [relative]. I used to think when Jesus said we have to forgive 70 times 7 times that he was talking about a limitless supply of pardons for new offenses. That’s often true. But I have come to see myself that some sins committed against us are so grave that the limitless forgiveness Jesus asks of us must be applied every day, again and again, bit by bit to the same person for the same offense. I’ve found myself over the years moving from despair to hope. But it ain’t easy. Forgiveness can be hell, as Our Lord showed us on the Cross. I only pray that before I die, I will have the grace and love to speak my final pardon to [this relative].” He went on to say, “We all carry memories of harms committed against us and harms committed by us. So much of the spiritual life is about humbly begging God’s mercy on both. We can become great saints only by inviting divine mercy into our memories, and mercy can only work if we join in by forgiving as much as we’re forgiven. It’s very hard work; remember, grace is freely offered, but it ain’t cheap to receive it. It seems that’s why ‘Lord have mercy’ is a litany in the Liturgy, because it must become a litany in our life.”

After receiving that torrent of wisdom, he absolved me of my sins. I was speechless and shaken to the core.

That reminded me, of course, of Fr. Tom Hopko’s fantastic words on dealing with our painful memories that I’ve shared before. Never too much of Fr. Tom. I’ll spread it between today and tomorrow.

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What’s the teaching? The teaching is: you’re going to have these thoughts, feelings, and memories. You are going to be tempted as St. Anthony says, “to your very last breath.” You’re going to be tried. There’s going to be tribulation. There’s going to be affliction. There’s going to be all kinds of troubles of mind, soul, spirit, and body. That’s part of being in this fallen world, and the claim is that God Almighty has sent his only-begotten Son to die on the Cross, to be raised and glorified, and to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can fight against them, by God’s grace and by faith and be victorious together with Christ and die with him and be raised with him and have everlasting life with him. This is not magic. It’s not automatic. It’s not mechanical. We’re not machines. We’re not robots. We’re not puppets. We’re free human beings. We’ve got to deal with these things freely. We’ve got to co-operate with God. We have to believe in God, trust God, and realize that the power of God is greater than these powers.

But then the question comes: Well, how do you do it? Practically, how do you do it? And here, I think, in a very superficial, simplistic way, there’s certain things that could be said right away without any doubt. 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.

However, the next point would be, but by faith in God and by the grace of God, it’s possible. With God, all things are possible. Even not to engage the thoughts and the feelings and the memories that assail us, that fight against us. St. Theophan said, “Like swarms of flies around our head. They keep buzzing all the time.” Well, they’re going to buzz and buzz and buzz forever. Till our very last breath, they’re going to buzz. There’s a saying that when Macarius of Egypt was dying, he was stepping into Paradise and he heard a voice saying, “Macarius, you have conquered.” And he turned and saw it was Satan, the devil. And he says to the devil, “Not yet,” because he hasn’t completely died yet. He hasn’t entered into the kingdom yet. Until both feet are in the kingdom, it’s not yet. As Climacus’ famous fresco shows about the ladder, you can fall off the top rung. You’re never safe until it’s over. As Yogi Berra says, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

There is this battle, but we can’t win it. Only Christ can conquer and win it. All we can do is believe in him, become his servant, pray for grace, and then what becomes impossible for men becomes possible together with God. So it’s by grace and by faith that we’re saved, not by works, lest any man should boast. That’s pretty basic. That’s pretty Christianly basic. St. Paul said it. St. Paul said in Romans, also; he said, “What I don’t want to do, I do; what I do, I don’t want to do.” Who’s going to save me from all of this? I have these other laws working in my members that drive me. And what I don’t want to do with my mind, my body is doing anyway.” He says, “With my mind I serve the law of God and the law of the Holy Spirit and life, and with my flesh I am serving the law of sin and death. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s Romans 7-8. And his answer is Christ. The Holy Spirit. Grace. That we can only receive and believe and live by and die to ourselves in order to live to God.

As Gregory the Theologian would say, “More often than we breathe.” Not only with every breath do we take every thought captive for the sake of Christ. As St. Paul said, “Take every thought, every logismos, every thought captive for the sake of Christ.” But more often than we breathe. We’ve got to positively keep our mind on God and not engage these horrible, destructive thoughts that are within us and are going to bug us and tempt us and afflict us until we die. The more we try to do good, the more that’s going to happen.

So the peace and the joy and the stability and the dispassion that we’re searching for is not when all this stuff goes away. It’s when, in the midst of it, it doesn’t touch us. It cannot harm us. Now here all the holy Fathers’ teaching can be synthesized in a very, pretty simple way. They will say the following. I believe this is totally accurate. They will say, “We have these thoughts, feelings, memories. They’re within us. We don’t know what to do about them. We can’t even assess where they come from.” And the holy Fathers would say only when you’re really advanced can you really see what comes from nature, what comes from fallenness, what comes from the senses, what comes from the demons. That’s a discernment that not any Joe Blow like you or me can have.

But we even would be advised, I think, not even to get into too much “where they’re coming from” and “how they work.” We’ve just got toname them for when they’re evil, and claim them and dump them, as they say in the 12-step program. You’ve got to acknowledge that they’re there. You can’t repress them. You can’t suppress them. You can’t try to flee away from them. You can’t pretend that they’re not with you. Wherever you go, they’re going to be in you and with you. There’s no geographical cure.

What we must do, according to the holy Fathers, because it is something that we can do, by God’s grace: we do not engage them. So as the holy Fathers would say, this is the dynamic, this is how it works. First of all, you have the pyrasmos, the temptation, the trial, the test. You have the logismos; you have the thought, the logismoi. So we have the temptations and the memories and the thoughts, the imaginations. We pray every night at vespers in the Orthodox Church: “to deliver us from the evil imaginations,” the evil memories, all that is in us. But they’re in us. They’re in us.

And then there’s even in us predispositions, these prolipseis, those former sins and the memory and what we’ve received. They’re already working in our carnal members. St. Paul says that they’re already working in this body of death that we live in, this mortal flesh. So we have to put to death what is evil in our flesh: not our flesh, not our body, but the evil passions.

So then there’s passions. When prepossessions really totally control us, then that’s enslavement. Those are evil passions. That could be “addiction” in modern terminology, when we’re really caught by it. But once we realize those things, and realize that there is a way out by the grace of God, there is a new reality that, with our mind we can believe and give ourselves over to, then how does the dynamic work?

Here, the holy Fathers would say—I think they would say, pretty much, the following. They would say: strive to be awake and to be vigilant. Strive to be aware of what’s going on. Don’t try to repress and suppress these feelings by will-power or exertion of your own human effort. You will fail. You will be crushed. But the minute those thoughts and the memories and the feelings hit you, flee to the Lord! Call upon the name of the Lord. Say the prayer of Jesus. Elder Porphyrios, one modern Greek elder, he even went so far as to say, “When they strike you, don’t even pray against them. Don’t pray against them. That gives them too much power. When you think about the temptations and the sins and the memories, you foment them.” That’s the English translation of his writings that I read. “You foment.” I guess that means you give them power. You give them a certain control over you. So Porphyrios would say, “Don’t give in at all. Flee to the light. Flee to the good.” And that’s a classical teaching.


Scattered thoughts on humility

Cardinal Bergoglio, Holy Thursday, 2011.


There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ The replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’

I read this story in Benedicta Ward’s fabulous translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and felt moved to share various insights I have received in the past on humility. I fear writing them, because they stand as fearful challenge to me (James 3:1-2), but if I apply that too strictly I’ll d never open my mouth. So I’ll write this as a petition.

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Thomas Merton, commenting on a saying of St. Antony of the Desert, said that humility, the foundation of all virtue, is also the most elusive of all the virtues. Once you claim it, you’ve lost it. Aquinas says that humility consists in keeping oneself “within one’s own bounds,” accepting one’s limited role in the Body of Christ and prompt fulfillment of daily duty. Augustine says that humility is truth, i.e. the capacity to embrace the truth about God, the world, oneself and one’s neighbors. The humble desire to know the truth, to face the truth and to place the truth in the service of their neighbor’s good and God’s glory (which is really the same thing). But Augustine also says that truth must be joined to charity, as truth without charity is arrogant and cruel, while charity without truth is indulgent and spineless.

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My wife has a marvelous thought about humility. She always says that the people she is most inspired by in life are those who are “unaware of themselves.” By that she does not mean that they lack self-knowledge. Rather, she means that they are self-less, not drawing attention to themselves but shifting the center of gravity to others. She says Philippians 2:3-4 captures this dynamic perfectly (which is why we had this reading in our nuptial Mass):

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others more important than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

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An AME pastor I knew in Florida had a great turn of phrase on this brand of humility: “The heart of humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Am I right? When I let God turn my ME right side up, my ME becomes a WE. Amen? Brethren, can you see? It’s love that sets us free! Hallelujah! Let’s all now praise God, saying, “Glory be to Thee, Oh God, Thou One in Three, who makes my ME bend the knee! Can we all agree? Praise God! AMEN! and AMEN!”

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Sometimes there is a confusion between humility and having low self-esteem, which I take here to refer to a distorted psychological self-concept that rests one’s sense of worth, self-respect and dignity on the shifting sands of others’ perceived expectations and judgments. Those who have low self-esteem are tortured at the thought of their flaws and failings and often seek to gain attention by constant self- or other-deprecating remarks, turning the focus either on, or away from, their own imperfections in order to fill their own ego-starved need for attention or affirmation. Those who are virtuously humble rest their self-concept on their inalienable and God-given dignity and, well-aware of their shortcomings and eschewing the need to prove themselves to others, rely only on the infinite mercy of God to give them rest from the burden of their failings. When they self-deprecate, it is not to gain or deflect attention, but rather is a serene confession of “the way it is.” Though they strive mightily for perfection, the humble are simply honest about themselves and their limitations; are sincerely contrite at the thought of their faults and failings; are reconciled to their imperfect “sojourning” state; and are joyful at each fresh opportunity to be reconciled with God and neighbor. Their self-less ego naturally seeks others’ well-being as part and parcel of their own. Being strangers to envy and resentment, they rejoice that others possess goods they themselves do not possess. Why? Because they realize that, in the final analysis, all is sheer grace from God, and every grace given to them is a grace given for the benefit of others. They quite naturally respond to not with the word “mine,” but with the word “thine.” When you’re with the humble, you feel built up, lighter, more human and more grateful for the good you have. When you’re with those beset by low self-esteem, you feel drained, weighted and guilty for the good you have.

At least that’s been my experience.

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A number of years ago I met a Sudanese priest (in the U.S. to appeal for financial support of the missions) who really embodied for me the humility I am speaking about. When I left his presence, I felt like I could be better. When I asked him if he would share with me his vocation story, he said something I found both challenging and enlightening. It went something like this:

My vocation story was very simple. No tortured struggles Americans enjoy hearing so much. In my village we had a need for a priest. I knew growing up I had the gifts to be a priest and I loved God. So for me it was a simple decision. I became a priest. What I think makes deciding a vocation so hard for Americans is that when you start with questions like — What is best for my happiness, What is best for my needs — and then you try to go searching for God’s will buried somewhere in there, it’s very hard to find. It’s a tortured struggle. If you start with what God wants and how I can respond to the needs of those that are around me — which is really the same thing — then you look at the gifts you have, feel where your love is leading, and it makes seeing your calling really quite simple. Don’t start with questions of fulfilling yourself, but with desires of offering yourself. Then set your hand on the plow and don’t look back, like Lot’s wife did. You can’t go wrong. And don’t worry, you will naturally find fulfillment because love fulfills and is your real vocation. What does St. Augustine say? He says, ‘Love, and then do what you will.’ Not, ‘Do what you will, then love.’ It’s hard, but so simple.

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St. John of the Cross offers a pithy description of the humble soul that has been purified in the purgative nights. He contrasts the humble and the proud.

Souls who are advancing in perfection at this time act in an entirely different manner and with a different quality of spirit. These souls humbly and tranquilly long to be taught by anyone who might be a help to them. This desire is the exact opposite of that other desire we mentioned above, of those who want to be themselves the teachers in everything. When these others notice that someone is trying to give them some instruction, they themselves take the words from their very mouths as though they already know everything.

Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. Because they consider their deeds insignificant, they do not want to make them known. They are even ashamed to speak of them to their spiritual directors because they think these deeds are not worth mentioning. They are more eager to speak of their faults and sins, and reveal these to others, than of their virtues. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.

These souls would give their life’s blood to anyone who serves God, and they will do whatever they can to help others serve him. When they see themselves fall into imperfections, they suffer this with humility, with docility of spirit, and with loving fear of God and hope in him.

Don’t Detract!

The other day, in preparation for Confession, I was reflecting on the “sins against truth” as described in the Catechism:

Catechism #2477: Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty
+ of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
+ of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
+ of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
+ To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way. As St. Ignatius of Loyola says: “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”

Detraction is, in my experience, one of the most challenging of the sins against truth to discern. When do you know you have an “objectively valid reason” for revealing someone’s weaknesses, faults, failing or sins to another?

A moral theology professor of mine offered this handy advice: “If revealing another’s faults or misdeeds is required by charity or justice, and you reveal them with that intention in mind, it is morally permissible. It is always preferable to confront the person in question directly, as Jesus instructed us (Matthew 18:15-17), but sometimes it’s not possible or productive to directly confront … When I say required by charity, I mean you are intending the salvation and well-being of the one whose sins you reveal. When I say required by justice, I mean you are intending the legitimate defense of yourself or others.” However, he added, most of the time when we reveal to others someone’s “dirty laundry,” it’s for neither reason, but is simply cathartic or malicious gossip. “Sinful human beings take a strange and macabre delight reveling in the revelation of another’s tripping and downfall,” he said, “and Jesus diagnosed our concupiscent psychology splendidly”:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye (Mt. 7:3-5).

He then, as a reflection on this Gospel text, offered an ascetical remedy for us to try and shared a story from the desert fathers.

Whenever you are tempted to reveal another’s flaw without a clear warrant, try two things. First, remember that God will judge you after the fashion by which you judge. So always ask yourself, “Is this how I desire God to deal with my faults and sins?” Assume he will. Second, before you dig into the juicy news, preface it with this in your heart: “For the glory of God and for the well-being and salvation of this person’s soul — and mine — let me tell you about…” If it doesn’t fit, don’t do it.

Let me share a story that was, and still is, wildly popular in the Coptic Egyptian Church. Its popularity is itself revealing.

St. Moses the Black was converted to Christianity and entered the monastic life in Egypt after abandoning a life of gang violence, alcoholism and crime. One day a monk had been caught in a particularly grievous sin, and the abbot asked Abba Moses to come to the church and render judgment. After a long delay, Moses finally came carrying on his back a leaking bag of sand. When he arrived, the brothers asked him why he was carrying such a thing. He said, “This sand is my sins, which trail out behind me wherever I go. And now I am charged to judge the sins of another.” At that reply, the brothers forgave the monk and attended to their own salvation rather than the sins of their brother.

“Consider the lilies of the field” Matthew 6:28

Repost from 2014 in honor of Pope Francis’ new encyclical [an excerpt of which I include at the end]

This past Thursday I took a day away from work to recoup some energy after a multi-week blitz of activities and just enjoy doing nothing especially productive. It was a truly a Sabbath that allowed me to pause with God, look with him at creation and join him in saying, “Very good.” And I find it’s only when I keep Sabbath that I can receive and echo his “very good” during the other six days of work.

Please allow me to be indulgent in today’s post and share some of my enjoyment of mid-March glory.

I went outside before dawn and breathed deep the cool, clean and dry air that settled over us in the wake of a recent cold front that drenched us with heavy rains. As I was bathed by the majesty of the dawn I concluded one cannot fully love the day without being fully present to its awakening! The sunlight was just beginning to illumine the highest heavens with a grey-blue hue, and near our house, concealed in the tangled branches of a budding tree, a mockingbird was canting away with his lovely, unoriginal repertoire. I sat there in the quiet for a time and reveled in the solitude. No one talking. Yet, how interesting that when I begin my day in this wakeful solitude, and with prayer, I find myself far more ready — even desirous — to wade into a world of words and noise and busy rush. Mission flows from communion.

After getting the kids off to school, I set off to my favorite local Eden: the grassy levee by Lake Pontchartrain. I walked up the slope of the levee far down west of where our house is and snuck into the backyard of a local retreat house. I was greeted by an expansive, fenced-in prayer meadow that was ablaze with tiny yellow blooms mixed into the greening grass, while the trees were frosted with innumerable white flowers.

It’s Spring.

I sat on one of the wooden patio chairs, with no book in hand — how rare! — setting aside sacred Writ to read liber naturae, the “book of nature,” which bears round about us, in refracted splendor, the traced vestiges of the seemingly shy FarNear Creator.

I listened to the songs of the warbler, chickadee, blue jay, starling, and mourning dove whose haunting lament always makes me think of my childhood. When I was probably eight, a pair of robins built a nest right outside my window, and every morning for a few weeks the hatchlings would wake me early in the morning with their insistent, plaintive cries for nourishment.

The air was crisp and breezy, tossing about the remaining dead winter leaves across a verdant blaze spotted with darting flares of purple deadnettle. There were honeybees all over, consuming secret nectar from impossibly tiny flowers — how do they find anything in there to drink? What carefree patience. The bees made a wonderful buzzing sound that, when there are dozens of them, sounds almost symphonic. It was as if there were some hidden conductor deftly calling them into a sonorous harmony.

My phone rang and passed into voice mail.

Then I wandered again out the retreat house property and hiked back up the levee’s gentle slope. It also was blanketed in a floral blaze, tinted by splashes of yellow painted into the deepest greens, and — wow! — the grass had just been mowed, filling the air with that delicious smell that has no worthy analogue. Why does the grass reward us for striking her down? Yet she does.

I stopped and just looked, listening to the silence only to discover in my state of mindful attention yet another sacrament: a chorus of crickets! Invisible, ubiquitous, hymning for sheer joy in unbroken melodies — as long as I remained still. Blissfully oblivious to the raging tumult of the world, persisting endlessly in their oscillating buzz beneath the still gentle mid-morning sunlight. They seemed especially jubilant that winter had passed.

I crept up to the crest of the levee and had my breath stolen by the flashing gleam of rolling blue water and the laughing joy of an azure sky. Too much to take in! I collapsed for sheer joy down in the lush vegetation, remembering at once all five of my senses were alive. How I forget!

Abounding beauty, glory’s eternal secrets finally being broken as God, like a child, seems only able to hide himself so long when we sit in still wonder, waiting in faith for him to appear.

I heard a purple martin’s throaty chirps and creaky rattles. It is my very favorite of all birds. The first of the season for me to spy. My heart leapt as he soared by with his pulsed and carefree flutters, diving and shooting back up again in search, no doubt, of his morning meal. But my attention was stolen at once by a tiny pewee that landed nearby in the grass — so close! I recognized his pitiful song: “pee-a-wee!”

Over the water there were terns diving for fish, which drew me at last down to the waterside to sit on the barrier rocks and soak in the rhythmic sounds. It was that kind of moment, so fleeting, when the heart overtakes the mind and demands supremacy. That must be what Paradise is. I closed my eyes and listened to the rolling waves slapping and dashing against the boulders. Unrelenting. Faithful. Spending themselves in a forgotten finale. I opened my eyes and watched. They seemed to be playing, dancing and hiding amid the crags and cracks, and on occasion would conspire to douse me with a dozen or so drops.

How thin at this moment was the veil of the Kingdom that longs to be torn.

I looked all around me. Black swallowtail butterflies were skipping over the grass while striped cucumber beetles in ridiculously large numbers, mixed in with a few ladybugs, carpeted the rocks around me. Where did they come from? Random. Beauty, almost too much to take in, everywhere. The book was open, the script was super-abundant, the meanings were beyond language.

As these are still a foretaste of the Age to Come, I had to leave them all behind. But before I stepped off of the rocks to make my way back to the car, I noticed a tiny ant mound. I stopped and stooped. They were working furiously in their excavation project, each worker tireless, single-minded in her selfless devotion to the good of the colony.

It was time to return to my work again, wiser for my Sabbath. Deo gratias.

Four things are among the smallest on the earth,
and yet are exceedingly wise:
Ants—a species not strong,
yet they store up their food in the summer;
Badgers—a species not mighty,
yet they make their home in the crags;
Locusts—they have no king,
yet they march forth in formation;
Lizards—you can catch them with your hands,
yet they find their way into kings’ palaces. — Proverbs 30:24-28

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From Pope Francis’ Laudato Si #11-12: 

Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.


An atheist meets Theos

We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

Once while I was on retreat, a monk told a “conversion” story to some visitors who happened to walk in while I was sitting in the front room reading. Here’s the sum of what he said as I recall it:

A lot of our ministry here is offering an oasis of peace and prayer for people frazzled by the world. There was a woman who used to come to the pond by the monastery several times a week, and just sit there quietly staring. Once when I was walking by her I said, “Good morning.” She said, “Good morning. You’re probably wondering why I come here so much.” I replied, “Lots of people come here for reasons we don’t know. But God knows.” She said, “Well, no disrespect intended, but I don’t believe in God. But my husband died a few months ago. I live nearby and have driven by here for years. For whatever reason I felt pulled to come here after he died to allow myself a place to grieve. It’s so peaceful here. Is that okay?” I smiled and said, “Of course.” And I continued on my way.

She kept coming over the next weeks, and then one Saturday she walked into the retreat house and asked to speak to a monk. She said to the guest master that she’d been coming here to find peace with the world and realized, after almost six months, that she had just come to believe in God … She’s Catholic now. She says what drew her in was the sense on the monastery grounds that all was right with the world and she felt a strange sense of hope. But, she said to the guest master, “what really tipped me was a monk who stopped to speak to me one day. I somehow sensed in the brief time he took to talk to me that I was loved unconditionally. I made the connection in the moments after he walked away — maybe that’s what ‘God’ means. Then I was in.”

I had no idea. But that’s usually when God does His best work through us [the visitors laughed]…

I was told when I worked at a hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity that Mother Teresa had a saying, “A saint is one in whose presence it’s easy to believe in God.” I’d say that sums up the best evangelizing strategy Christians have.

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All of this has great relevance for the preaching of the Gospel, if we are really concerned to make its beauty more clearly recognized and accepted by all. Of course, we will never be able to make the Church’s teachings easily understood or readily appreciated by everyone. Faith always remains something of a cross; it retains a certain obscurity which does not detract from the firmness of its assent. Some things are understood and appreciated only from the standpoint of this assent, which is a sister to love, beyond the range of clear reasons and arguments. We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness. — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium