Vox. Poetica. Deus mortuus est.

“The Crucifixion,” 1325 A.D. by Giotto. bp.blogspot.com

I guess I lied. I said no posts until after Easter, but two things happened in my path.

First, as I unpacked boxes in my new office yesterday I found an old collection of poetry I had written in the 1990’s+, bound in a beautiful case as a gift by a dear friend of mine. I sat and read them over. I found one I had written on a Good Friday and thought to share it here. Hope I did not already last year! My memory.

I almost never recite aloud poetry, so it is what it is!

Second, a young man emailed me yesterday morning and asked for some reflections “for understanding better the meaning of the Triduum — maybe some history and a little theology stuff.” How could I resist? So early this morning I jotted some notes out and decided to make a voice recording over morning coffee to save typing time. I had planned ~10 to 15 minutes, ended up 31 minutes long. Loquacious am I. Or as a candid friend said to me the other day, “Tom Neal, never an unblogged thought.”

May these Three Days be for you ones of special encounter with Christ. How He loves you.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (beneath Golgotha)

The Cross at Ground Zero. carbonated.tv

[In absence of more time to write, I will share my recent journal entry here meditating on the Triduum. It was a one sitting stream of thought. I pray one insight feeds your prayer these holy days. This will be my last post till after Easter, so all good wishes for your celebrations to be filled with joy and God’s blessings.]

As I have been meditating on this impending Triduum, a host of insights have been boiling in my heart. I will write them here with a logic and order totally disrupted by the unsettled-ness of this paschal mystery. Worse in its mess because I am part of that mystery. Gulp.

In the 7-day liturgical rhythm of the first creation story in Genesis, Friday (day 6) is the day Man was created, male-female, in the divine image; Saturday (day 7) is the day of both divine and human Sabbath rest; Sunday (day 1) is the very dawn of creation when God first spoke light into being.

Good Friday. Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday.

The Pasch of Christ weaves its seamless disruption so magnificently into the textures of creation’s pattern, you almost don’t notice when the bread and wine become Him. Clearly, divine providence loves patterns that evince surprising beauty. God loves making us gawk.

The Last Supper takes place, by the Jewish counting of a new day beginning at sunset, on the same day as the crucifixion. “Holy Thursday” is a deceptive way of naming the Last Supper. The Eucharist and the cross are in one day, are one event.

The Eucharist is a verb, a sacrificing: Body broken for you, Blood spilled for you.

The Eucharist is a verb, a command: Take, eat; Take, drink. Terrifying to eat and drink verbs. Especially ones suffused with crazed love. Active, plying. I much prefer nouns. Passive, pliable.

The Eucharist is a verb, a demand: As I have done, so you must do. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.

The Eucharist is God-Man grain, grapes, surrendered to death, to crushing, to pressing, to fire, to fermenting, to ingestion. All in order to give life, to give thanks, to reveal the most secret essence of God. God is food, drink.

The crucified and risen Flesh and Blood of the God-Man is His supreme sacrificial self-gift for His bride, for humanity. Given so she might become “church,” ekklesia, which means “called out from where you are.” Out of my comfort zone, that is, to where He is. Ekklesia is the Woman born of His open side, a New Eve washed and clothed, invited, called and gathered into His home, His life, His love, His faithfulness, His joy, His recreating work.

The Eucharistic sacrificial banquet feeds us, the image-bearers God created to make certain creation was lovingly cultivated into a beautiful, fragrant, fruit-filled, life-giving Garden of offering.

The Eucharist effects, seals, perfects, elevates, transforms, transfigures, glorifies, divinizes Man and Woman. Eucharistic Communion is the true two-in-one-flesh, the extreme source and paradigm of all human community, the nuptial union on which a new humanity is built.

The Word once spoken into clay, in the beginning, comes now, in time, to speak words of tender love to His image. Yet His image silences Him, takes His Breath away. The “word of the cross” is His silence, the asphyxiation of the God who breathed life into Man in the beginning. Silent, breathless love. “He opened not His mouth.” “He breathed His last.” “He handed over the Spirit.”

Listen to His silence, eloquent beyond all words. In His silence He listens attentively to our screaming hatred, rejection, cursing, jeering, mocking, spitting, abuse, blasphemy, ridicule, injustice, lies, torture, death. His silence speaks long, long-suffering mercy. Omnipotence, un-condemning from the cross, unsaying sin, undoing death, unmasking violence: “I don’t want to hurt you,” He says in effect. And after He rises, after being felled by us He says with indescribable kindness, “Shalom.” “Do you love me?” “Feed.”

“It is finished,” before He finally obeys death. Creation is finished, completed, redeemed, re-created now that the labor of love-to-the-end has ended its exodus and all things have been delivered. God can rest in the completion of love’s toil.

The Burial of Christ, the Sabbath of the slain God-Man, a rest restless with the urgency of love (John 5:17); of a Father gazing in tender mercy on the corpse of His Son, contemplating the goodness and beauty of Their love’s self-emptying work. The Word-made-flesh has restored creation to its original beauty and goodness (kalon) by an act of obedient love. Creation was created by and for love. As Christ rested in Hell, slept in that loveless space, preached hope wordlessly, Hell shook with unrest and terror.

And on the first day of the week, before dawn, the Word, dreaming of us, awoke from sleep and at once commanded Hell still, Death slain, Sin pardoned, the Grave powerless. The Word rose from death’s darkness and said, “Let there be light.” And He was Light without evening, forever risen in an unending Day, artisan of a New Creation, Gardener of an immortal Garden through which the Living Waters flow.

All this because in His compassion He came down for us, for our salvation. For me, the guilty, fallen, beaten and bleeding bystander, He stooped low to tend my wounds and lift me up.

I re-read Fr. Aidan Nichols’ reflection on the paschal mystery again this week for the umpteenth time. This paragraph always blows me away:

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act, i.e. a deliberate act of adoration of the Father … Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.

It means so many things to me! But here is what springs to mind.

The “purely secular conditions” of human existence — what is good and what is riddled with chaos and evil — are caught up into the cross-shaped Liturgy that, every day since the Resurrection, fills the world. Haunts the world.

Especially through the laity, whose baptismal priesthood renders them liturgical beings, allowing them to carry with them, everywhere, the “hidden fruitfulness” of  the Liturgy. As they live, love, work, pray, eat, drink, forgive, play, sacrifice, repent, suffer, sleep or weep, the earth-quaking power of Christ-unleashed hiddenly floods out of them into every nook and cranny of secular life. They roam out about everywhere, celebrating amid the truth, goodness and beauty of the world; as well as amid the “betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference of the men of power” — all the while gathering innumerable fragments of redeemed existence and bringing them, compressed into bread and wine, up to the Holy Sacrifice.

The faithful refuse to abandon anyone, anywhere — even the hangman or the gulag — by leaving them bereft of Christ’s saving power. Pentecost ensured Hell no longer has anywhere to hide, no world without a soul.

“We may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body” (From a letter to Diognetus, 140 A.D.).

The redeemed animate the world with divine life and love, humbly and mostly unnoticed, like God Himself.

Ours is a Paschal Liturgy, in which purity appears wrapped in filth; love in hate; gentleness in violence; life in death. Fr. Kavanagh:

The Book of Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear. Suburbia prefers its meat wrapped in plastic, all signs of violence removed so as to reduce the necessity of entering into the dark and murderous transaction with reality which one creature giving up its life for another entails.

Daring to liturgize, we join the obedient love of the “total Christ” — Christ and Christians — who bears on His back the sins of the “whole world” (1 Jn 2:2) and everything is redeemed (Titus 2:11). Christians have this noblesse oblige, this liturgical burden to offer their own Christ-knit lives to the Father in the Spirit for the whole of humanity and creation. Interceding forever for all, lifting them up with and to Him (Heb. 7:25); offering up their bodies as living sacrifices “on behalf of all and for all,” with martyrdom being liturgy’s apogee.

Egypt, Copts, Passion Sunday. Alongside them, I am unworthy to be called Christian. May I become worthy.

The Chaplet of Divine Mercy magnificently captures the liturgical work of the baptized as a Eucharistic co-offering for the whole world. And it should be prayed not only in churches or shrines, but everywhere we find ourselves. Eternal Father, I offer you…

Someone just sent me this clip they recorded during the celebration of Holy Mass on a balcony in the French Quarter. The recording catches a most beautiful part of the Mass, the “liturgy of the laity” — the Offertory. It seemed divinely timed that during the Offertory a huge second line party passed right under the balcony on the street below. It was a wedding. How fitting. No need to be super-spiritual here in the sense of being swept off into some otherworldly Heaven. Rather, Heaven swept down to Earth. Or, better, Heaven wedded to Earth, and man was reconciled to God.

As at Golgotha, this wedding welcomed near unlikely guests joyful, smelly, drunken, laughing, staggering revelers. In those streets, some strange and unsortable mix of saints and sinners. I imagine the shysters, tourists, prostitutes, johns, tax collectors extorting, gamblers squandering their mammon, addicts looking to buy, dealers looking to sell. Unaware their redemption was near at hand. Encircling them. Above them. Beside them. Beneath them. For them.

Might they only see, hear, understand and say, “Remember us, Lord, when you come into your Kingdom.”

I dream of an outbound Church, not a self-referential one, a Church that does not pass by far from man’s wounds, a merciful Church that proclaims the heart of the revelation of God as Love, which is Mercy. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Pope Francis)

Thank you, Father Celebrant, clothed in Penitent’s Purple, for turning your face toward them, and so sweeping them — us, me — up into the at-one-ing Offering.

It seems fitting to end here with an excerpt from Hymn of the Universe by Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, followed by a contemporary musical setting of the 6th century liturgical hymn to the Cross, Vexilla regis proderunt:

I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous rhythms trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this mystery that I thus desire all the fibers of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Tree of life and glory, Tree that heals and saves;
Tree that tells the ancient story:
dying, rising from the grave.

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He, by whom our flesh was made,
In that same flesh, our ransom paid.

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life’s torrent rushing from His side,
To wash us in that precious flood,
Where flowed the water and the blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old,
That He, the nation’s King should be,
And reign in triumph from the Tree.

O Tree of beauty, Tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear:
Gone is your shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of Glory now.

Divine ecology, writing and seed-casting

Sunset during the Willwoods Gala cocktail hour — “Tom, look, you need to get a picture of that and write a Blog on it!” I love challenges.

[Another busy week this week so probably no posts till the Triduum.]

I have no idea where this entry will go. Enjoy the ride…

Saturday night, my wife and I were invited to attend the Willwoods Sixteenth Annual Gala. Willwoods is a NOLA Catholic ministry that serves, among other things, the work of strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.

Patti and I love events like this because it’s kind of a “who’s who” in the world of NOLA Catholic culture on-the-move, with laity and clergy who invest their energy and love and faith into a unique aspect of Catholic life. Aided by an open bar, we had lots of lively conversations with a number of people, some of whom we had never met, but now are connected with — which is our favorite part. As I sat early Sunday morning reflecting on that night and the conversations we had had with quite a number of people, I began to think of the way many those people have reshaped me, my worldview, my marriage and my family’s life.

How marvelous is the interconnectedness of humanity! How astounding it is that we, as persons made for each other, are wholly defined by our relationships — for better or for ill. Many of the people I knew at the Gala I would consider people who strive for holiness, who have labored strenuously to permit God’s grace to shape their lives and, through them, influence the lives of those they interact with every day.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a priest I know, whom I quoted in yesterday’s post. He’s a remarkable man who has an unusual depth of compassion. By that I mean that he possesses a sustained and genuine interest in entering into others’ worlds and allowing them to enter into his. Not to simply accomplish some useful goal, or as a superficial formality, but in order to allow a meaningful human relationship to emerge. It is only, he believes, within such authentic human encounters that Christ can truly enter and reveal His life-enriching glory. It is a marvel to behold the fruits of his approach in others’ lives, mine included. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear said of him is: “He is so caring.” 

Such an approach to life and ministry takes discipline, intentionality and repeated acts of patient love. It comes with a high price tag. You might say his approach lacks a certain product-oriented “efficiency” which demands many — or even most — relationships be functional and goal-oriented. But from what I have seen and heard, the resulting quality-over-quantity “product” he produces bears the sweetest and most enduring of fruits on which alone — he would argue — genuine Christian community can be built.

It certainly was Jesus’ methodology.

As we sat together eating our meatless salads on a Lenten Friday, he asked me to describe the process that goes into my writing posts for this blog. “Where do the insights come from?” Here is roughly what I said:

The vast majority of posts begin with something I read, a conversation I have, a sunset I watch, a billboard I see, an insight that appears while I pray in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Something about this or that experience I have in a particular moment sparks something in me, like a flash of light, which then somehow gets caught up, in my mind, into the matrix of Christ — with it casting light on Him or Him casting light on it.

Then I will feel compelled to jot down the essence of whatever insight I’ve had on a receipt in my wallet, or speak a voice-to-text sent to my email address, or ask my wife if she wouldn’t mind pausing our evening conversation for three minutes while I type an explosive idea I just had into my blog drafts. Bless her heart, she’s so patient with her manic husband.

I have hundreds of drafts sitting in my wordpress account, waiting for me to have time on my hands and a Muse stirring in my imagination.

The amazing thing about writing, for me, is that when these insights detonate inside and I write them, they come alive inside of me. Like, really alive. The whole of my perspective is altered, shifted, expanded, troubled, deepened, stretched, inhabited by something new, something living, something vital that, once released into my thought-world, continues to work on everything I see and do and hear and touch and taste and reflect on and love and pray.

It’s like the ideas I get are living, not simply dead facts or bits of data added to a mental fact sheet. They trouble the waters of my mind until everything else adjusts to their presence. Which is why I love the song, “Wade in the Water,” which captures the “feel” of what goes on inside me as I theologically reflect on some wierd thing that caught me by surprise.

But I’ve noticed that it’s really only when I take these new insights and write them in my blog, or weave them into a talk or lecture I will be giving, that they come alive and begin to reshape the way I see and experience everything. They can’t just sit there, or they vanish. It’s only when I *intend* to give them away that they seem to have the power to re-define the way I see everything. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is information added to my worldview, while faith is information, set in motion by love, that reshapes and defines my whole worldview; becomes bit by bit the way I see everything — others, yourself, the world, God. “I believe” means “I see.”

But it’s really when I take the new knowledge into my prayer-time that, like activated charcoal, purfies and enriches and affects everything else, in a strange way, resetting the the whole mess of my inner life.

That’s really quite odd sounding, isn’t it? It sounds odd as I never articulate this. Thank you for asking the question and listening so carefully.

After I finished sharing this, he shared with me a metaphor that floored me. In brief, it went something like this (I will do grave injustice to it here trying to sum it as his phrasing was so succinct and brilliant):

The image that comes to mind as you speak is of an ecosystem, with your intellectual thought being almost like an ecology of the mind. An inner culture. Ecosystems have a certain delicate balance in which each organism adapts to its native environment and learns to cohabit with other organisms in a vital interdependence and network of life which allows all to thrive in an organic web. But when a new organism is introduced, everything gets troubled, disrupted, and needs to realign and re-adapt to the demands of the newcomer introduced. And vice versa. The ecosystem needs to adapt itself and change to move toward a new equilibrium in which everything becomes different, even if only slightly.

This seems to be what you’re describing here. What you allow into yourself, through your senses or in prayer, finds an already established inner-ecology, Tom’s unique personal ecosystem with its worldview that then trustingly yet discerningly welcomes in various new organisms, i.e. a new face, a new idea, a new smell or sight or taste; or divine life. Everything then has to adjust. And it’s all alive, as you say.

And then when you write, it’s then that you actively reorganize your ecosystem to make a fitting place for the new living principles, whatever they might be. Like dreams do at night, defragmenting and reorganizing new information, writing does for you. [Tom: Which makes me a daydream believer? Us: haha] Maybe some new things you’ve taken in have to be chewed up and digested, while others must be expelled or others embraced, while still yet others — like divine grace — well, you have to allow them to consume and digest your ideas, feelings, desires; your soul and spirit … or even the whole of you. Like the Shema commands. So when you consume the Eucharist, as St Augustine says, Christ consumes you; metabolizes you; adapts you to His divine-human ecosystem. The whole Church is this adapted ecosystem, expressed and given birth to in those real symbols of theandric [God-man] biodiversity: Christ in the Sacraments. Saints are the embodyment of the whole Church in its radical adaptation of human life to God-life. Or maybe the other way around, too, if we believe St Irenaeus. [He was speaking of the Catechism #53: “St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure”]

At the heart of your inner culture, Tom, your inner ecology — constituted by your own free act of faith — is the gift of divine love, the indwelling Spirit that is itself the womb of the ecclesial Supernatural Organism, with its own force and vitality and blows-where-it-will purposes. It gets into everything like leaven spreading resurrection through dough. All of which you welcome whenever you pray. Prayer exposes your inner ecology to that of Jesus, joins them.

So whatever enters into you throughout the day encounters not only “Tom,” but God active and living and sorting things out within you. Christ within is busy at work re-creating in you a new creation; a new Ecology; a new Garden. Holiness. Only then, through such saints, can He extend His divine-human culture and ecology into the various ecosystems around you and effect new changes in others’ lives and in the whole material world you inhabit. That’s holiness, and its progress is slow, uneven, filled with setbacks, death and rebirth.

In this line of thought, that means the Cross embodies the event of God introducing Himself into a human ecosystem that has organized itself against, and to the exclusion of, His life. While His love compels Him to risk entry and deadly rejection in our hostile ecosystem, even while He remains long enough (to the end of time!) for that living system to gradually adapt itself to His presence and organize its life around and in and with His life. The Cross is the symbol of God’s willingness to pay an immense cost in order to enter our world and achieve a symbiosis with us. Divinization by hominization. Restructuring our micro and macro cultures according to the omnipotent principle of divine-human love. Jesus. He is the ecosystem of God introduced into the ecosystems of creation, through the consent of a Virgin who welcomes God into our world. 

Something like that.

I said: “What just happened?”

We went off in stunned silence to retire for the night. He showed me where the tea was for the morning. My heart was on fire with this new metaphor. And I could not get out of my mind that night a chilling scene from the movie, Risen, that contains a dialogue between a blind woman and the Roman tribune, Clavius, who is trying to crush the new “Jesus is risen” movement. They are discussing her claim to have encountered the risen Jesus. Listen:

Hopefully in ten years I will have a better way to explain its power.

 

 

Threatening Mass

Cornsheaves. rackcdn.com

Re-post 2014, amplified

This amazement should always fill the Church assembled for the celebration of the Eucharist. But in a special way it should fill the minister of the Eucharist. For it is he who, by the authority given him in the sacrament of priestly ordination, effects the consecration. It is he who says with the power coming to him from Christ in the Upper Room: “This is my body which will be given up for you This is the cup of my blood, poured out for you…”. The priest says these words, or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in his priesthood. — St. John Paul II

I recently taught a course on the liturgy to seminarians in Omaha. The course explores the theological and spiritual depths of the liturgy to better enable these future celebrants to personally enter more fully into each celebration in a life-transforming way. The hope is that a fuller personal engagement with the mystery of the liturgy will make them more effective mystagogues, i.e. ready to lead the faithful into those same deep mysteries.

One day I invited a priest to come and speak in my class about his own experience of celebrating the Mass. I asked him to give them advice, based on his personal experience, on how to deal with the distractions and obstacles that can prevent them from experiencing a fruitful celebration. Not being a priest, I needed the view of an insider.

As I listened to him, I thought of the immense privilege I have to be such a trusted part of this work of forming priests. Although the seminarians where I work full-time may not realize it, my lay colleagues and I feel insanely blessed to each be a small part of their formation. In fact, I recall once in Des Moines, Iowa an particularly intense sense of this. I was leading a day of recollection for the priests of the Des Moines deanery (itself a terrifying prospect for me!) on St. John Vianney as a model for parish priests. At one point in the morning, as I was speaking, I was unexpectedly overcome by a moment of awe that shook me up. I was commenting on this line from Vianney: “Oh how great is the priest! If he realized what he is, he would die.” Just as I began offering my commentary on its meaning, I felt inside these words ambush me, as if they were from Christ: “They are me for you.”

I stumbled over my words for a moment before I was able to continue. Later I wrote in my journal:

“Me for you” locates priestly identity in the heart of the Eucharist, making them a sacrament of His self-gift: “…this is my Body which will be given up for you…this is the Chalice of my Blood…shed for you and for many…”

Okay, back to my Omaha liturgy class…

Among many other practical points, my guest-speaker priest shared with the men a struggle I’d never considered before. He called it “teetering between ecstasy and dullness.” There is, he said, as with all things in life that are sacred, the danger of routine; of daily repetition which can breed complacency and contempt. He continued,

But there are these occasional lightning bolt moments that leave you a bit startled. That knock you off balance. While routine can breed contempt, the bolts threaten you with getting lost in the Rite. They are never predictable and are mostly about some new awareness of Christ acting in you. Then there are these moments when you are totally overwhelmed by a very real sense you’ve become Christ’s “I”. Acting in the “first person” with and for Him. Christ and I become “one I” at the Consecration. “My Body” — I am almost afraid to say it at times, it’s so intimate. Totally blows my mind. It’s almost too much to bear and threatens my ability to complete my role.

And then there are other times I’m stunned, like when I’m asking the Father to send the Spirit down on the gifts of bread and wine. I’ll become intensely aware that I’m calling Him down by Christ’s authority. He always comes. That’s terrifying.

Then there are other times when I’m tired, distracted, when I just don’t perceive what I’m doing. That’s totally okay, you can’t always be “on,” it’s not all about your personal experiences. But I do notice that often my lack of attentiveness to the mystery I’m involved in is closely connected to my slacking in my personal prayer that day. Or my lack of preparation before Mass, which is sometimes due to pastoral necessity, other times just my laziness.

The key, he told the seminarians, is not allow these two extremes to become polar opposite experiences. And never to seek out the highs or run from the lows. But to allow one to influence the other. Let the dull moments get kindled by the startling ones, and let the startling ones stay anchored in reality by the duller times. “That’s the flux of life, brothers, so get used to it. But don’t get used to it. Priesthood is a fulcrum full of tugs and pulls that makes for greatness.”

That’s great advice for the spiritual life of any Christian.

He then shared with us a poem called Harvest and Consecration by Elizabeth Jennings. I’d never read it before. He focused on the last line of the poem, saying it best captured his sense of these tensions. I wrote in my notebook at the end of his lecture:

It’s a rare person who loves finding him or herself caught in uncomfortable spots, who appreciates that the discomforts of being torn between alternating extremes.

I try.

These swings are what make me feel fully human, more open to the fully divine. Caught between opposites. Most of my personal energy comes from the tensions that emerge between obvious and hidden, exciting and boring, boundless and fenced in, seen and unseen, strength and weakness, transcendence and immanence, static and earthquake. It’s where mystery, left long over fire, remains in a permanent state of what Meister Eckhart called in Latin, ebullitio, “boiling over.” It’s easier to remain exuberant there, I guess. Extremes lack mystery. The middle’s where it’s at. Maybe that’s what’s needed to carry out St. Paul’s impossible command to “rejoice always” (Phil 4:4).

Jennings wrote her poem for a priest, to help him augment his sense of how its lowly earthy signs and symbols masterfully convey divine mystery. May our hearts never be protected against the unpredictable inroads of God!

After the heaped piles and the cornsheaves waiting
to be collected, gathered into barns,
after all fruits have burst their skins, the sating
season cools and turns,
and then I think of something that you said
of when you held the chalice and the bread.

I spoke of Mass and thought of it as close
to how a season feels which stirs and brings
fire to the hearth, food to the hungry house
and strange, uncovered things —
God in a garden then in sheaves of corn
and the white bread a way to be reborn.

I thought of priest as midwife and as mother
feeling the pain, feeling the pleasure too,
all opposites together,
until you said no one could feel such passion
and still preserve the power of consecration.

And it is true. How cool the gold sheaves lie,
rich without need to ask for more
richness. The seed, the simple thing must die
if only to restore
our faith in fruitful, hidden things. I see
the wine and bread protect our ecstasy.

Thank you, dear priest-fathers, for your generous self-gift to Christ for us. May He protect your ecstasy…

St. Pink the Recycler

Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney

Another busy week so I may not be able to post until the weekend again.

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

I am on a lifelong mission — God willing — to help, in a small way, to prepare the theological groundwork for ordinary, secular, world-loving lay men and women to be canonized en masse — or at least inscribed in some official ecclesiastical hagiography — before the close of the 21st century.

Married, single, single parents, divorced, annulled and remarried, widows and widowers, fathers and mothers, childless couples, lawyers, stockbrokers, janitors, fashion designers, actors, business men and women, doctors, maids, school teachers, janitors, principals, bankers, musicians, factory workers, gunnery sergeants, librarians, machine shop workers, architects, prison guards, manual laborers, accountants, nurses, CEO’s, physicists, counselors, police officers, mechanics, electricians, engineers, secretaries, carpet cleaners, the disabled, homebound elderly or bartenders who strive to love God with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength by loving their neighbor as themselves — especially the poor — quietly, consistently, imperfectly yet heroically. I list these intentionally because, over the 30 years I have actually been noticing, I have spotted people whom I have experienced as saints in every category listed — and many more.

Oh, speaking of bartenders. My wife and I know this 69 year old bartender who has bartended since he was “of age.” He’s a man of gritty, callous-handed, steely-willed faith. He put his children through Catholic school and college by working days, nights and weekends as a bartender. He has been with his wife for 45 years and serves as a philosopher-counselor to countless barroom patrons. He always has a smile to give, attended by some pithy piece of world-wise advice with a moral to it. Last time we saw him, he did us a real kindness. When I thanked him he shook his head and said, “Look son, the good Lord’s got me here to serve my fellow man. And in my line of work, He sends me lots of people down on their luck who need a lift, if you know what I mean. He blesses me, I bless them. That’s the way life’s supposed to work, right?”

When you’re around him, you just feel better about everything, never want to complain again but rather want to give your all.

Canonizing these would give us lots of specific names from that second unsung, singing group of Saints that the book of Revelation 7:9 mentions:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Soteriologically speaking, “no one could count” makes me smile.

These seemingly nondescript, ordinary, mundane mystics may not ascend to God through the mansions of a contemplative flight that lifts them above the earth, but they do, day in and day out, descend with Him into the world, extending the mysteries of His earthly life. The laity grow deeper in their sublime union with Christ as He screams and cries as an infant; contributes, as a child and a young man, to the daily life of His family; grows in wisdom by studying hard; goes to synagogue every week and occasional pilgrimages to Jerusalem; becomes fully a part of the community life in His small hometown of Nazareth; works with His hands for 20+ years as an artisan; roams the highways and byways of Galilee and Judea; parties at weddings; climbs mountains to pray and reflect; dines with sinners, friends, benefactors and religious leaders; forms close friendships with men and women; contends directly with the darker side of local and empire politics; pays taxes; engages with pagans and heretical Jews and hyper-orthodox Jews; teaches and preaches and debates anyone willing; heals the sick; confronts injustice; feeds the hungry; fishes with His disciples; enjoys breakfast; takes a nap; struggles with temptation; flirts with exhaustion; suffers unspeakable pain; weeps and dances and laughs and sings and gets really angry. Loves.

And, according to John 21:25, these are only the tip of the iceberg! Jesus was a busy man, like us in all things but sin.

The laity, called by God to be “tightly bound up in all types of worldly affairs” (Vatican II), are the secular mystics of God’s descent into, and habitating within, the world He “so loves.”  Hidden everywhere in the world like leaven in dough, lay saints can best be spotted by their local shepherds, called in church lingo “secular” priests. These parish and chaplain voyeurs of lay holiness live in closest proximity to the “Church on the Front Lines,” the descriptor Ven. Pope Pius XII gave the laity. These priests, fascinated by lay holiness, are perfectly positioned to write hagiographies that can serve as an inspiration to the billion+ other Catholic lay men and women who long to see accessibly extreme models of the secular genius. These sainted Janes and Joes witness to a fully lived baptismal priesthood that wreaks havoc on sin and death, punching holes in the Font they were once thrust into — so that the whole earth, inundated by the re-creating mercy and love of God, might become an outpost of heaven.

A new baptismal priest, ready to consecrate the world!

So back in 2013, when I read the obituary of Mary “Pink” Mullaney, an 85 year old Wisconsite who left behind six children and 17 grandchildren, I thought (teaching in a seminary as I do): This should have been written by her parish priest! The obit could be the abstract at the beginning of his petition for her canonization.

A friend of mine sent her obit to me today, out of the blue, with the caption: “just rediscovered this. we need to open her cause for canonization. patron saint of the lay trash!” So, I say, let’s get on with it.

Mullaney, Mary A. “Pink” If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop. Consider: Mary Agnes Mullaney (you probably knew her as “Pink”) who entered eternal life on Sunday, September 1, 2013. Her spirit is carried on by her six children, 17 grandchildren, three surviving siblings in New “Joisey”, and an extended family of relations and friends from every walk of life. We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments.

Also: If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay. Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after mass. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. When you learn someone’s name, share their patron saint’s story, and their feast day, so they can celebrate. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to “listen with an accent.” Never say mean things about anybody; they are “poor souls to pray for.”

Put picky-eating children in the box at the bottom of the laundry chute, tell them they are hungry lions in a cage, and feed them veggies through the slats. Correspond with the imprisoned and have lunch with the cognitively challenged. Do the Jumble every morning. Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don’t get lost. Make the car dance by lightly tapping the brakes to the beat of songs on the radio. Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is “Peat Moss.” Help anyone struggling to get their kids into a car or shopping cart or across a parking lot. Give to every charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online. Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass. Take magazines you’ve already read to your doctors’ office for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label, “Because if someone wants to contact me, that would be nice.”

In her lifetime, Pink made contact time after time. Those who’ve taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the overheated garbage collector and mail carrier, every baby will be kissed, every nursing home resident will be visited, the hungry will have a sandwich, the guest will have a warm bed and soft nightlight, and the encroaching possum will know the soothing sensation of a barbecue brush upon its back. Above all, Pink wrote – to everyone, about everything. You may read this and recall a letter from her that touched your heart, tickled your funny bone, or maybe made you say “huh?”

She is survived by her children and grandchildren whose photos she would share with prospective friends in the checkout line: Tim (wife Janice, children Timmy, Joey, T.J., Miki and Danny); Kevin (wife Kathy, children Kacey, Ryan, Jordan and Kevin); Jerry (wife Gita, children Nisha and Cathan); MaryAnne; Peter (wife Maria Jose, children Rodrigo and Paulo); and Meg (husband David Vartanian, children Peter, Lily, Jerry and Blase); siblings Anne, Helen, and Robert; and many in-laws, nieces, nephews, friends and family too numerous to list but not forgotten. Pink is reunited with her husband and favorite dance and political debate partner, Dr. Gerald L. Mullaney, and is predeceased by six siblings. Friends (and strangers she would love to have met) can visit with Pink’s family at the Feerick Funeral Home on Thursday, September 5, from 3 until 7 PM with prayer service at 6:45 PM. Mass of the Christian Burial will be celebrated at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Whitefish Bay on Friday, September 6, at 3 PM. Dress comfortably with a splash of pink if you have it. In Pink’s memory donations may be made to Dominican High School, 120 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay, WI 53217, or Saint Monica Parish, 160 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay, WI 53217, or any charity that seeks to spread the Good News of Pink’s friend, Jesus. Valet Parking in front of the funeral home on Thursday.

P.S. Pope Francis loves these saints, and knows exactly who I’m talking about:

Ministers on Mission

Running up the stairs on 9/11

Re-post from 2015

Over the summer while I was in Omaha, I was privileged to meet privately with a Bishop and speak with him about all things ecclesiastical. For almost 90 minutes. Actually, it was quite jarring. I was asked one day to meet with this Bishop who was in town, and I didn’t know why he wanted to meet with me After we sat down together and finished the pleasantries, he said: “I want you to tell me what you think about us bishops, about how we handle the church, vocations. Be honest. And don’t blow smoke at me.”

I felt a shiver go up my spine at the prospect of having to offer critical thoughts about bishops to a Bishop whom I did not even know. But the man was so genuine and sincere — and humble — I felt able to candidly share my thoughts on his questions.

After I finished, he said a number of things to me that I found really striking, many of which I wrote down in my journal later. Let me share with you one line of thought he followed. He gave me permission to share his general observations, so here you go. It’s all in his voice:

All too often, Tom, I find, those who seek out leadership positions in the church, whether they’re lay or ordained, are driven not be a sense of mission to serve others and build them up in the name of Christ and His church. Instead, these are driven by a desire to fill their own personal needs or act out of their own unresolved issues. Good leaders have to be defined by mission and service, and not by personal needs. We have to set ourselves aside for the sake of God’s people. If you’re consumed by your own issues all the time, you can’t own the church’s mission.

I can tell right away when I’m with a needy minister, because when I’m with them I walk away thinking mostly about them and their needs and problems. They always manage to turn the conversation back on themselves and their interests or their woes. The worst thing I could hear someone say about me is, “Poor thing. So sad.”

Leaders in the church who are mission-driven should always leave people thinking about Jesus and the church. Feeling built up, encouraged, lighter. People should want to be better after working with you, or feel they’ve been brought closer to God after speaking with you. Or feel more impassioned about their own life’s mission, because that IS your mission: to help them fall in love with theirs.

The point is that you have to point away from yourself, to lose yourself in the will of God. Have you noticed that when an “I” finally falls prostrate, it becomes the first letter of humility? [I was so captivated by that image, I created one!]

It’s why the church says holiness in church ministers is imperative. Holiness is always other-focused because holiness is about love. Love takes you out of yourself, gets you wrapped up in others and in God. You stop living for adulation and approval, stop dragging along with you all your attention-getting clanging baggage. Save that for your spiritual director or your counselor or your peer support group. Don’t use the people you serve to soothe or feed your malnourished ego. Look, I’ve got plenty of mine own baggage, believe me, but I know I can’t use the people I serve to fix them.

As I said, people should walk away from you lighter, more hopeful and encouraged, more joyful and on fire with their personal mission. The goal of a leader in the church is to be totally forgettable. Not with false humility, or because you’re just drab and dreary, but because you always point away from yourself toward the people you serve, toward the church, toward the Lord. Like Pope Francis says it, good leaders are mediators not managers. Mediators convey and communicate grace and the Kingdom, help others discover God’s dream for them. But managers manipulate grace and the Kingdom for personal gain, use God as their excuse to control, impose their own agenda or exploit the faithful to their own advantage.

I always tell our seminarians that it’s really a good thing when they experience opposition and conflict in their leadership work. It keeps them humble and grounded and cognizant of the fact that it’s not all about them at all. It’s about the mission of Jesus. The Beatitudes are clear: if you’re keeping to Jesus’ mission, and people hate the mission, you’re going to feel the heat. You can’t change the mission to make sure it works for you. You work for it. And the mission of Jesus is mercy that supports the fallen, heals the broken and confronts lies and sins. It should make you uncomfortable, knock the chip off your shoulder, end the pity party. I also tell our seminarians, the same spirit that inspired the firefighters to run up the stairs in the burning towers on 9/11 should inspire you to get up again every day to be faithful. To give your life.

In the New Testament good leaders, Beatitude-driven leaders rejoice in hardship only because they want the mission to succeed more than anything else. They’re happy to pay a price, to decrease to make others, and Jesus, increase.

Tom, it’s like you as a father, right? Think about it. Your role is not to make your children like you, or to make life easy for yourself. Your mission is to help them become good people, good citizens, saints. To provide for them. When you demand they honor you or thank you or say please, it’s because you want them to become the kind of people who show honor, gratitude, courtesy; not because you yourself want those things from them. Your role is always much bigger than you. For a father, the needs of their children trump all personal needs. Your a father for them, they’re not sons and daughters for you. And if they reject you or oppose you as you try to love them into greatness, all the better for your fatherhood! You die to whatever in yourself is unworthy of fatherhood — pride, laziness, anger, selfishness. You live to embody your paternal mission to give them love and the opportunity to be virtuous men and women.

That’s what holiness is. The saint is one in whom person and mission become one. Jesus says as much when He says “my food is the will of my Father, my raison d’être is the mission He sent me on” [cf John 4:34; 6:38]. We talk about the cross as an act of spousal love, but the crucifixion is also a very fatherly act. I know you know that! [laughter]

The Great Commission [Matthew 28:16-20] means [he spoke loudly]: It’s simply not about me or about you, Tom! It’s about the mission, the mission, the mission.

I can never say that often enough to other leaders. Or to myself.

Yeah, that.