Solomon the Wise

“God Speaks to Solomon in a Dream” bibleencyclopedia.com

Yesterday we had a faculty retreat to begin the new academic year. It was such a breath of fresh air for all of us, and a nice reunion as most faculty were away for the summer. Here are my sprawling and free-flowing notes I wrote out at the end of the retreat after everyone left. I’ll not post tomorrow because of the length. For what they’re worth…

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Our retreat director began with the story in 1 Kings 3 of God asking young Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What a frightening request! A divine blank check! As one of my colleagues read this passage aloud, I immediately thought of the Latin dictum, Lex orandi, lex crediendi, “the law of prayer, the law of belief.” Solomon’s response to that open-ended offer would lay bare his faith life and his character as King, since we pray as we believe. “Where your treasure is, there also is your heart” (Matt. 6:21). Was Solomon, like his father David, really a man “after the heart of God” (cf Acts 13:22)? It was as if God were asking, “Solomon, son of David, do you love me above all things? Now, let’s see how you pray…”

I kinda wished the reader had stopped for a minute after God’s offer so we could’ve formulated our own response… What would I ask of God?

Solomon passed with flying colors! “The Lord was pleased,” the text says. Why? Because his prayer sought from God what was dearest to God’s heart. He, God’s vicar, sought from God the gift of wisdom to rightly govern His beloved people, and did not seek gifts for himself (long life, riches) or the death of his enemies. Solomon’s prayer recognized that, as king, he was God’s servant. His was only a borrowed glory, a shared governance. So he sought God’s wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge of God’s will (i.e the Law) that is applied through prudential judgment to order one’s own life and the lives of others in accord with that will. The king loves the King principally by ruling faithfully in the King’s stead. Wisdom means ordering our steps in His Word.

[lyrics below]

Jesus, the New Solomon and Wisdom incarnate, teaches us that perfect wisdom is found in the Great Commandment, as charity is the fulfillment of the Law. The wise leader, therefore, shepherds the rabble of sinful humanity into the order of charity, forming them into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). A parent, priest, principal, president tasked with this mission knows it is a brutal, thankless, exhausting task, indeed.

I just noticed Jesus’ thrice posed question to Simon Peter (John 21:15-19) bears a striking resemblance to God’s question to Solomon. Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Of course, Simon Peter vehemently insists that he does love Jesus, but Jesus presses the question further by drawing out its implications — if you love me you will govern those I love, wisely, according to my will: “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, feed my sheep.”  And in John 21:18-19 Jesus reminds Peter where the wisdom of charity leads every leader:

When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter passed on the soul of this sage advice to his pastoral successors in 1 Peter 5:1-4. A brutal, thankless, exhausting task, as Pope Francis can no doubt attest. Yet it is a sublimely divine task, as God’s providential laboring love ceaselessly governs, guards, guides and provides for our sorry lot. The burden of leadership, carrying others to God (Numbers 11:14/Luke 15:5) offers ample opportunity for intimate union with the Good Shepherd in our exhaustion, making wise leaders into bleary-eyed, weary-headed, aching-shouldered mystics. Especially: speaking to God about those under our care, tirelessly presenting their needs to Him, is profoundly sanctifying as it very immediately mingles our concern for them with His. And in the end, sanctity is all about melding the whole tangle of our inner and outer lives with His, into a grand + alignment.

It’s why “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to justice, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).

A woman I know who has five children, four with serious to severe disabilities, texted me earlier this summer asking for prayers after some rough days they’d had with hospital visits. I texted back: “Man, y’all have had a hard stretch this year.” She replied, “Yup, they exhaust me and wear me out. But God knows I’ll take exhausted with them over rested without them any day.” I texted back the Hebrew word for worship, Shâchâh, which means “face in dirt,” and told her I was doing that after reading her text. For me, heroism makes me want to #1 repent and #2 worship God for giving the world such people.

Yesterday afternoon I met another woman, the cashier at a gas station. When I asked her how she was she said, “Tired and blessed.” I said, “I love that you said ‘and blessed,’ and not ‘but blessed.'” She then told me she worked two other jobs, that her husband died last Fall, leaving her to raise three children and her deceased brother’s son. I said, “What keeps you going?” She replied with such a natural ease, pointing to the cross on her neck chain, “Real simple. Him. He did it for me so I can do it for Him. My kids know I’m only as good as I’m in His grace.” My daughter who was with me said as we walked out, “Wow that was totally random and amazing.”

Shâchâh. 

As Fr. Tom Hopko said, “Some saints are pillars of the world, while others, like me, become saints by allowing those saints to lead us along the way. It’s why devotion to saints in the Orthodox church is absolutely essential. It’s God’s way of keeping us totally inter-dependent. If all were pillars we wouldn’t cling to each other. A Christian alone is no Christian.”

As I sit with all of this here, I can’t help but reflect on the gravity of my vocation as a family man and as a teacher. I have to be like Solomon and ceaselessly beg God for wisdom and to intercede in prayer for those entrusted to my care, who are under my authority or subject to my influence. When I was on my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my 80+ year old spiritual director called me on the carpet for not praying for my wife and children by name every day. I told him I always mentioned “for my wife and family” when I prayed. But he wasn’t buying it and retorted, “The Shepherd wants names, son. And He wants details.” He continued, “God has entrusted them to your care, Tom, and He will call you to account for it. You can’t manage this one alone. You must realize that their welfare depends just as much on your prayer as it does on your supporting them in every other way. The closer people are to your circle of responsibility, the more serious is your obligation to daily pray for them by name, and pray for God to help you to serve them as they deserve. And,” he added, “you need to ask the Spirit for a double portion of wisdom and counsel because your responsibility is great and you know you’re not too bright when it comes to prudential matters.” We laughed, and then he said, “But I’m serious.”

He ended his loving reproval by saying to me, “Tom, what’s most beautiful to me about intercessory prayer is that even as you ask God to care for others, He invites you to be part of the care He gives. When you ask God to stir into action for others, you’ll feel Him stirring within you. So be careful what you ask for. You just might become it.”

When evening came, the disciples came to Him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds, so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” “They do not need to go away,” Jesus replied. “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:15-16).

Pope Benedict XVI in Auschwitz:

Our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness.

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Order my steps in Your Word dear Lord
Lead me, guide me everyday
Send Your anointing, Father I pray;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Humbly, I ask Thee teach me Your will
While You are working, help me be still
‘Cos Satan is busy, God is real;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please, order my steps in Your Word

Bridle my tongue let my Words edify
Let the Words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight
Take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
Order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

CHORUS
I want to walk worthy
According to Thy will
Please order my steps Lord
And I’ll do Your blessed will
The world is ever changing
But You are still the same;
Please order my steps, Lord I’ll praise Your name

Order my steps in Your Word
Order my tongue in Your Word
Guide my feet in Your Word
Wash my heart in Your Word
Show me how to walk in Your Word
Show me how to talk in Your Word
When I need a brand new song to sing
Show me how to let Your praises ring
In your Word (2x)

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

REPEAT CHORUS ( 2 X )

Please order my steps in Your Word
Please order my steps in Your Word

The Safe Bet

“We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, ‘Surprise me.’” — from Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

I have been writing a lot recently in my personal journal about discerning God’s will. Here’s an excerpt from last weekend’s entry. The young man I describe graciously gave me permission to share this anonymously, so I slightly adjusted some details to respect this. This is a story I, and others I know, have heard innumerable times from young men and women.

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I came across a young man [a time ago] who wanted to speak to me about the paralysis he was feeling over what to do with his life. He was terrified of choosing the “wrong thing,” missing what God had, as he said, “selected” for him to do with his life. Evidently, someone had told him that if he wanted to sustain the intensity of the robust prayer life he’d developed, the “safe bet” was to become a priest or religious. His original college plan was to go into law, as he had been inspired by his grandfather’s legal career. But the “safe bet” approach had gotten lodged into his head and he now felt immobilized. This has killed not only his desire to enter law, but his desire to do anything. A law career now seemed to be an obstacle to his spiritual life, and priesthood and religious life seemed like an imposed requirement.

We talked for almost two hours, and focused on the importance of interior freedom, flanked by peace and joy, as the hallmark of vocational discernment. We talked about the need for wise counsel and self-knowledge. We also talked about distorted views of vocation, like this “safe bet” proposal, that create false dilemmas and, so, paralysis. Among other things, I said something like this:

When Jesus called Matthew to abandon his tax collector post to follow Him, Matthew followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. When Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree to abandon his unjust business practices as tax collector, and become a ‘son of Abraham’ in his home and at his tax post, Zacchaeus followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. But notice, in neither case was the standard for the decision-making the ‘safe bet’ option. The safe bet is “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). And everything human beings can do in life, save the choice of sin, contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, strength by loving neighbor.

For Matthew it meant giving up his trade to become a disciple-apostle-evangelist of Jesus, and eventually a martyr; for Zacchaeus it meant sticking with his trade, admitting openly (in front of his peers!) his injustices, remediating these four-fold, giving alms to the poor and becoming an upright tax collector who invited his fellow ‘sinners’ over dinner to do the same. In other words, vocations must be about the choice to glorify God by a life of self-less love, which is always the gist of every call of Jesus. “Pick up your cross and follow me” gives us that sense, as cross carrying is what loving in a fallen world looks like. Being called to be holy, holy, holy is to be all about other, other, other. God-neighbor. Jesus. Once you get that, discerning becomes a whole new thing, far from concerns hyper-centered on oneself. And your spiritual life does not become an end in itself, an obstacle to the freedom to respond to the inconvenient details of reality.

The million dollar vocational questions sound something like this: ‘Standing before the face of Jesus in prayer, how do I see myself best loving God by serving others with what I have to offer, in the direction my heart seems to be drawn in freedom as I reflect on the needs in the church-world around me?’; ‘What makes my heart naturally leap outward in love toward God-neighbor?’; ‘What sins might be hindering my accomplishing that?’ Then, start walking and put a smile on God’s face with the offering you make of your life.

I once encountered a priest who served in Sudan who said to me [I pulled up this quote for him on my phone]: You Americans, I’ve noticed, tend to begin the discernment of God’s will by thinking of personal fulfillment. ‘What will make me happy? Bring me a sense of fulfillment? Prosper me?’ It’s difficult to think of God’s will from that starting point. God is handcuffed. But in my village, my family, we start with: What do my people need? Or what does the church need? What do I have to offer? And if I see these match, and it’s a way for me to love best with the abilities God has given, deciding is easy. Loving God, which is doing God’s will, is found when you start with your neighbor’s needs. This is how I chose to be a priest. There was a need, I had an inclination and the gifts. I’m a priest. It was a simple decision, but not an easy one.

After we spoke, this young man said, “It’s like chains just fell off me.”

Then I pulled up an article by Peter Kreeft, and read this to him:

My first clue, based on my purely personal observation of this kind of people, is that we often get bent out of human shape by our desire—in itself a very good desire—to find God’s perfect will for us. We give a terrible testimony to non-Christians; we seem unable to relax, to stop and smell God’s roses, to enjoy life as God gives it to us. We often seem fearful, fretful, terribly serious, humorless, and brittle—in short, the kind of people that don’t make a very good advertisement for our faith.

I am not suggesting that we compromise one iota of our faith to appeal to unbelievers. I am simply suggesting that we be human. Go watch a ball game. Enjoy a drink—just one—unless you’re at risk for alcoholism. Be a little silly once in a while. Tickle your kids—and your wife. Learn how to tell a good joke. Read Frank Schaeffer’s funny novel Portofino. Go live in Italy for a while.

I said, “Just take a deep breath and relax. Or as my kids say to me, chillax dad! It’s not supposed to be this hard, brother.”

He choked up.

Then he said, “Okay, so I’m going to go to the zoo now, because I’ve loved zoos since I was a kid. And I will pray on all this there.”

“Speaking the truth in love” Ephesians 4:15

“Rabbinic debate” liveauctiongroup.net

[this was an email I sent to someone who recently asked me for advice on “how to win an argument”. Seemed good to post on the feast of St Dominic, the Veritas saint!]

“Truth happens in the course of dialogue. There is always a temptation to allow our answers to bring to an end the process of searching, as if the topic of the conversation was a problem that has now been solved. But when a fresh question arrives, the unexhausted depths of mystery show through once more. Let it be said over and over again: faith is not a question of problems but of mystery, so we must never abandon the path of seeking and asking.” ― Tomáš Halík

I had a philosophy professor, when I first began my graduate work, who would never affirm anything a student said but would always immediately qualify, critique or expand on each answer. I remember being so frustrated by this! In fact, I remember one time when, in my emotional exasperation, I threw caution to the wind. Right after I’d given what I was certain was the right answer, he began with his, “Well, it’s important not to…” I just blurted out, “Come on, Dr. Heisenberg, can’t you ever just say ‘good answer’ and leave it at that?” He replied, “And what would you learn, then? That you have the whole truth and that settles it all? How boring! Then the dialogue would end. No one ever has it all. We’re always on the way.” Then he taught us a medieval scholastic axiom. “In any argument,” he said, “seldom affirm or deny and always make distinctions. In other words, rarely say, ‘That settles it!’ or ‘You’re wrong!’, but discover the portion of truth in what is said and set it on a journey toward greater things. That way, you keep the relationship alive with your dialogue partner, and you reaffirm your commitment to learning more. We’re always on the way.”

I wanted to explode.

Here I could see — after I calmed my pride — for the first time the deeper meaning of another medieval scholastic axiom he taught us, Amor ipse notitia est, “love itself is a form of knowing.” The quest for knowledge, if it is done well, should cultivate love between fellow seekers. When carried out thus, arguments should augment friendship. The goal of an argument should not be, “I won!” or “You won!” but “truth has appeared,” which for lovers of truth is a cause for common rejoicing and gratitude. What each sought all along has now been found and is the possession of both. Triumph! But if truth-seeking is undertaken merely as a pursuit of private property or becomes a manipulative vying for the upper hand, making of knowledge a commodity and not a common good, then dialogue will always devolve into a competition and “victory” will always mean the defeat of love.

Whether in philosophy or theology, this approach has taught me not to view apologetics as the hunt for a silver bullet or a slam-dunk argument meant to silence my opponent. Rather, apologetics is to be a method for cultivating and sustaining in every conversation a common quest for truth’s appearing. This is, in fact, how God deals with us. When He becomes flesh to invite us into all Truth, and we responded with the counter-argument of the cross, He rose again only to re-extend the invitation in merciful love to join Him in an eternal friendship, exploring the fullness of Truth that sets us free.

There was a woman I knew in Florida, an atheist who converted to Catholicism, who shared with me what her impetus was for converting. She said, “William [a work colleague] gave me my first real exposure to intelligent Christianity. But what was most convincing about him was that he took my own arguments against his positions very seriously. And you know, when you believe someone is willing to listen to you and learn from you, when you disagree, you’re much more likely to return the favor. That’s rare. And I did.” Pope Benedict’s words make this point well:

Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity

This approach to any and all arguments, I have found, holds out the highest hope of forging out of difference philo-sophia, a love of wisdom that fosters friendship. And Truth is very interested in friendship (John 15:15). The sweetest debates I have ever had are still ongoing, with men and women who share this commitment and have allowed friendship to emerge from disagreement. When what is sought is not conquest but Christ, who is Truth, the end-game is always the victory of charity. If we follow His example, every time we get in an argument we would do well to begin washing each other’s feet as we argue, so as to maintain the focus on truth’s service to love.

Amor vincit omnia, “Love conquers all.”

Enter the Mystery

Today’s feast of the Transfiguration this year falls on a Sunday. What a gift!

I am sitting outside of the seminary during a torrential thunderstorm waiting for it to subside. It’s dark and the car is shaking. I am looking at this icon thinking of the scene in the Sunday Gospel. The three “core group” disciples, having just scaled a high mountain with Jesus, are suddenly overcome by this stunning vision of their Master suffused with blinding light, flanked by Moses and Elijah, overshadowed by the “bright cloud” of the Spirit and deeply shaken by the sound of the Father’s thundering voice commanding obedience to His Son’s teaching. This is a full-fledged theophany, an appearing of the deepest secret of God: Tri-unity abiding in our flesh.

The first reading from the Mass today punctuates the awesomeness of what is being manifest here on the mountain, the mystery that roars ceaselessly in heaven: the Ancient of Days, from whom uncreated fire ceaselessly surges, around whom all of creation is arrayed in worship and by whom all things are judged. In the moment of the Transfiguration, Jesus permitted the disciples to glimpse what is always true of Him as “God from God, Light from Light.” Terrifying and fascinating all at once. God.

The disciples in the icon bear the proper posture before a vision of God: free-falling. As Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī said so well, “to know God one must sell cleverness and purchase bewilderment.” Along with these three disciples, Moses, who spoke to God on the mountain “face to face” (Ex. 33:11), and Elijah, who hid his face at God’s appearing on a mountain (1 Kings 19:13) today invite us, through the sacred Scriptures, to prayerfully encounter the the human Face of God, Jesus Christ.

Dare to enter the mystery.

Spirituality of Offering

allswalls.com

I can’t sleep, so I will write…

I am preparing a talk for next week on (as always) a spirituality of the laity suited to their secular mission to “consecrate the world itself to God,” as Vatican II says it. Whenever I enter into this doctrine, it completely alters my experience of life for days after thinking it through in prayer. It’s like I’ve shuffled through the Wardrobe into Narnia for a time, and came back.

At the root of this spirituality, I am convinced more and more, is a “spirituality of offering.” This is in fact the sum and substance of our baptismal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), as priests’ mission is to consecrate the “stuff of life” and render it sacrificial, offering it up to the Most High. The whole spiritual life finds its vibrant epicenter here, as humanity was placed by God in creation to enact this most sacred transaction between heaven and earth. Being a unity of both matter and spirit, we are each a microcosm of two vastly different realms, perishable and imperishable. We are made of stardust stamped with the likeness of the Heavenly Spirit. Our bodies are the product of billions of years of cosmic star-death and resurrection, and as priests of the new covenant we draw this whole cycle of violent history into the Incarnate God’s own death and resurrection, that He might breathe peace on all things and transfigure them into the immortal glory of His divine-human life.

At the Transfiguration, Jesus, standing atop a high mountain to behold the vast horizons of creation, revealed in His priestly body our future glory. In Him, eternity has already penetrated into the very heart of the earth. He is the truest Heart of microcosmic Man, and in Him the divine Light blazes not downward on Him from above, but outward from within Him. Think of the image of the Sacred Heart. At the conception of God in the womb of Mary, the divine Fire moved from the foot of Sinai into the heart of the world. And those of us joined to Jesus by faith and baptism extend this conception of the divine Fire to the whole of creation (Mark 16:15) and permit it to soak deeper and deeper into the entire created order, penetrating even down into the dominion of hell with the dawning light of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The laity, called by God to sanctify the world “from within” by entering every corner of secular life – marriage and family, culture, politics, education, science, business, economics, etc. – effect this priestly transaction of consecration and up-offering by “doing the world” according the God’s will. Acting in justice and integrity, humility and courage, kindness and patient endurance; facing life’s hardships in faith; carrying out the works of mercy; spreading joy and hope; defending the defenseless and giving voice to the voiceless; and every other such manner of being upright in a fallen world – this renders the time and space we bodily inhabit, holy. “For justice is undying” (Wisdom 1:15).

Above all this offering is carried out in the spirit of ceaseless prayer, that priestly colloquy between God and man in which the Spirit is called down on all things and our sacrifice offered up to the Father in, with and through Christ. Creation looks to us, her priests, to voice her praise to the Creator and to rescue her from the bonds of death by joining her agony to our hope:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:15-19).

Every moment of history, every tiny plot of earth we trod longs to be claimed for Heaven by us who bear, on behalf of all and for all, the immortal Fire within. Who bear love. Next time you can climb a mountain, take these words of Rainer Maria Rilke with you and recite them loudly to all you see:

And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within – oh endlessly – within us! Whoever we may be at last.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

And then go to Mass and hand all of it over to the Celebrant, who will complete your consecration and offering, and then command you: Go, be sent! And gospelize the world some more…

Playful Providence

I love the Jewish-Christian idea of divine providence, which the Catechism #302 defines very simply this way:

We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward perfection.

Combining the Latin words pro, “ahead” and videre, “to see,” providence’s “divine foresight” reveals history to be not simply the subject of blind chance, but as under the guiding watch of fatherly love that, in spite of the looming cross, ever-envisages a more glorious resurrection. That said, Catholic theology affirms that genuinely random chance is part of creation, fully compatible with a divine providence that allows the “space” required for the radical variables of chance and human freedom. As theologian Thomas Davenport puts it:

God’s creative power is such that the very powers that allow a creature to act and to cause, even to cause contingently and by chance, depend at every moment on His sustaining power. Whatever happens in the world, whether it is a radioactive decay, a biological mutation, a decision to sin, or a decision to praise Him, does not catch God by surprise. In fact, He gives His creatures their existence and their natures that allow them to decay, to mutate, to sin, or to praise.

For me, such a view of history is far more thrilling to contemplate than either a predestining providence that controls all things like a puppet on a string or a providence-less universe wherein history blindly presses on without hope of a final resolve into beauty. The first makes for a monstrous view of God who enslaves creation and the second makes for an ultimately meaningless, purposeless view of history. The Jewish and Christian universe, however, is filled with all the tensions of drama and surprise, mystery and faith, terror and eager hope of a labor and delivery room.

And with play.

All of this came to mind because of remarkable coincidence that happened last week, which I will recount for you in brief. A little background. Twenty-three years ago my wife and I fell in love. I remember precisely the place and time. We were in St. Augustine, Florida on a mini-pilgrimage to the holy sites there, in particular the Nombre de Dios mission with its tiny Our Lady of La Leche Shrine dedicated to Mary nursing Jesus. As Patti and I walked toward the two-hundred and eight foot tall cross marking the location of the first Mass celebrated by the Spaniards in Florida in 1565, I remember vividly looking at her face for the very first time with romantic love. We had been simply friends before that for years. Later that evening, after dark, we decided to visit the Shrine chapel to pray. The gates were locked, so we jumped the fence and went into the chapel. The alarm went off! So we prayed very quickly, and I consecrated our still very secret love to God and our Lady, and then we sprinted off.

It’s a wonderful memory she and I love to revisit together, and over the years of our marriage we would return to that Shrine chapel many times to pray for the gift of a child or to grieve our miscarriages.

Back to last Friday. Patti had been gone all week at a conference and I was feeling especially lonely that day. During the morning while I was working, I texted a friend of ours in New Orleans to wish him a happy birthday. He knows nothing of our St. Augustine history or the “shrine alarm” story. He responded to my birthday text at once, “Tom, so kind. I’m here at this chapel. NOW in St. Augustine. Will say a prayer for you and the family.” I assumed he was referring to a parish in New Orleans called St. Augustine, until he texted me a moment later the picture I included at the top of this post. A photo of Our Lady of La Leche Shrine.

I was flabbergasted and audibly reacted in the coffee shop: “WHAT?!” Two elderly men across from me fell silent and stared. I said, “Sorry, just an amazing coincidence.” I immediately texted him back to share the significance of his text to me, and he replied, “What!!???!! Wow. Mass at noon. You both will be in our intentions. So crazy. Right!!!! Literally. [You texted my your birthday wish] the exact moment we walked into the chapel.”

What the heck? How? Why? I don’t claim to know. Coincidence inhabited by the Creator. As a person of faith it’s easy to see in such moments what I like to call God’s playful providence. Maybe its part of His passion — so evident in Scripture — for connecting events, revealing hidden patterns, painting wild masterpieces, telling crazy stories, writing seemingly-cacophonous symphonies, creating stunning beauty, disclosing a new order of existence under the form of surprise. Glimmers and sparks of a conspiracy toward Christ’s final resolve into beauty, what we Christians call the final judgment, the parousia, the consummation of history when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” On that Day, evil will be definitively judged, love will conquer all, every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new. The work God first began in the Virgin’s womb, nursing at her breast, will be brought to glorious completion in an eternal wedding feast.

Yes, right, a wedding feast that for us began in a Shrine as we ran.

How grateful I am that the Bridegroom chose last Friday to grant me a glimpse of His “divine disposition toward perfection” in my bride, and through the text of a dear and unsuspecting friend on his birthday.

Lead Thou me on.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Should lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life. — Bl. John Henry Newman

Look up!

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[Because of a blitz work demand through Saturday I will force myself to pause! Matt. 21:29]

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ― Robert Frost

I have two kinds of writing I do: Required writing and kindled writing. (Those are my terms, by the way). Required writing involves deadlines and duties, like writing a lecture for a class or an article for the upcoming newsletter. Required writing constitutes quantitatively the vast majority of my writing work, because it has to do with ever-present demands of work or volunteer responsibilities I have taken on. Then there’s kindled writing, which emerges in the moment, is driven by circumstance, impulse or a flash of unexpected insight. That’s what I write here, exclusively. If this blog ever became mandatory, deadline-driven or made money it would cease to be what it is. NealObstat is the writing that allows me the luxury of expressing my inner stirring sense of wonder and awe in the most natural, spontaneous, fun way. And, at least in terms of conscious awareness, it gives me the most intense sense of God’s presence.

It’s what the spiritual authors sometimes call scriptio divina, ‘divine writing.’ When one ‘writes in prayer,’ they say, he becomes much more open to intuitive-symbolic forms of knowledge than is available through discursive, analytical writing. When I write in prayer, in the freedom of wondering ‘without a why,’ many more fresh insights are allowed to emerge. At least for me.

Now let’s be clear, I am not making any claim to divine inspiration or to the superiority of one form of writing over the other. Each has its role and God’s immediate action in anyone’s writing is always an ambiguous affair. And, though I distinguish these two writing styles, they often overlap with one another and are not sealed in tidy categories. But I love and cherish the opportunities I have for kindled writing and am exceedingly (heap on here any and all hyperbolic adjectives) grateful that readers of this blog engage my writing and make use of it for their own benefit. You give my thought wings.

Frequently I wake up at 3:00 a.m. and cry out: “You idiot! Why do you think anything you have to say matters?!” But I console myself with the thought that, inasmuch as what I say approximates God’s self-revelation in Jesus in His Spirit-filled Church, or gives testimony to the greatness of the extraordinary people I am blessed to know, it’s worthwhile. Then I pray the Jesus prayer.

Or I just re-read Numbers 22:21-38 and claim the braying jackass again as my patron saint.

Why am I writing all this? Because Monday I experienced in a striking way a sudden shift between required and kindled writing. I’d spent nine hours that day in required writing for various projects, lectures and courses I have coming up. Although writing is always a gift to me, the stress of deadlines has a way of squishing you inside. I was exhausted mentally as I left the building. I walked to my car with my eyes on the ground, staring mindlessly. As I took my keys out, I was suddenly startled by a whopping crackle of thunder that shook my insides. I looked up and everything outside and inside of me at once changed. The roiling black clouds wedged beneath the dark blue sky to the north, the gray veil of rain quickly advanced toward me, the bluish-white bolts of lightning linked heaven and earth, and the strong cool breeze descending from the core of the storm caressed my face with its clean hands. I fell to my knees and laughed. Anyone watching would have worried about me.

I realized at that moment how shallow my breathing had been all day as I hunched over my laptop and typed. I drew deep into my lungs the refreshingly fragrant cool air that was washing over me. All of this experience completely re-wrote my inner world in an instant, diluted the mental sludge and re-awakened a heart of wonder within me. What for a moment seemed like a future filled with insuperable demands suddenly seemed possible, or at least seemed hopeful. My widened horizons made room for hope, which demands space and which can only be satisfied by the sounds of God’s strident protest against the impossible. The word “capacious” sprang to my mind. I felt immensely spacious within, my narrow walls suddenly stretched big by this rogue, dark, threatening and unsought cumulonimbus.

How marvelous! Startled into the light by the darkness.  I thought of Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And all I wanted to do was sit down in the parking lot, take out my laptop and write. So many new insights came into me. But alas, another work meeting awaited. No time to write them out. But before I fell asleep tonight, I was determined to write out this reflection on the ‘feel’ of it all, at the risk of indulging my own solipsistic fancy. Hopefully in service to hope.

Thank you for walking with me.

No matter how narrow your world seems, look up and allow Him to surprise you. Anyway.