“Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven.” — Henry Ward Beecher

Michael, Nicholas, Maria and Catherine 4 years ago

Maria and Catherine this week

“Children laugh an average of three hundred or more times a day; adults laugh an average of five times a day. We have a lot of catching up to do.” ― Heather King

“The soul is healed by being with children.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A piece of parenting advice my wife and I received nearly 20 years ago from a dear friend went like this: “There is beauty in every age, so appreciate its uniqueness while you’ve got it.” She was responding to my frustration over parents with older children constantly saying to us, “Sure, they’re cute now. But you just wait until they become teenagers! You’ll see.” I swore I would never say that to other parents, and have kept that promise. Having lived through four teenagers, I certainly ‘get’ the challenges that are unique to the teen years. But I can say with our friend these years later: there is indeed beauty in every age.

As we have been spending lots of concentrated time with our daughters this week on our vacation (sadly, our sons had to work), three things have occurred to me in this regard. I’ll speak for myself, though I would guess Patti would echo my thoughts.

First, I enjoy being with our children more than with (save my wife) anyone else. Though we obviously have various conflicts that arise over various things, I never ever tire of being with them, of doing things with them. They have brought unparalleled joy into my life and have made me smile more than any other single thing. There seems to be in that a certain desirable definition of family.

Second, seeing your children develop their own unique personality, gifts and interests is just an astonishing privilege. And seeing them surpass me in so many ways is a thrill I could never have anticipated. You find yourself wanting them to fly higher, run faster, be smarter, love God more than you ever could. And that’s not some saintly selflessness, it’s just the genetic code written into fatherhood and motherhood: “They must increase, we must decrease.”

Third, parenting has the power to carve out a genuine humility in your soul. Wow. Oh my. As my children enter and approach adulthood, I can now assess in hindsight my parenting successes and failures. Dear God. No false humility needed here, as the real thing awaits you in truck loads. Patti says that every night as we kneel at the side of our bed, she prays: “God, please supply for all my failures today, repair any damage I may have caused and use any good I did for their welfare.” Amen. Children pull you out of yourself, call out virtues you did not know even existed, remind you of the virtues you lack, stretch you, pound you, pass you through fire, decimate your sleep, hold a mirror back in your face (yikes!), keep you honest, teach you how to love hard and deep and long. They make you learn to pray again, anew, with them, for them, about them, “out of the depths.” And they plunge your marriage into the refiner’s fire, making you realize you never really knew what it meant to be “one” until they were thrust between you and proceeded to school you in a thousand and one ways to be one.

Patti often says, “On our wedding day we thought we loved each other more than we ever could. We knew nothing!” You ain’t kidding.

I have shared here before that a woman I know with a special needs son (along with her four other children) once said to me, “I never knew how self-centered I was until he was born. And then he, so patiently, taught me to love. If I am ever saved, get to heaven, it will be because he taught me how to get there. How to love.” How clear it is that the more our culture exalts the cult of the self, the less children will be welcome in our world.

Patti has always loved to repeat to people Elizabeth Stone’s quote: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Yes. Exactly. The risk of loving someone you unconditionally invest everything into and then have to unconditionally let go of.

Last night Patti had to return to Metairie for choir practice, so I spent the evening alone with the girls. We played the game Set, listened to music, ate dinner and watched the movie, “What About Bob?” As I sat there with them laughing, I was overcome with deep emotion. Tears streamed down my face with gratitude. How was I chosen by God to raise these children? My sons, my daughters. Our sons, our daughters. His sons, His daughters. If I died at that moment and entered heaven, I would not have noticed the change.

Stay Put

ferrazgroup.co

[Been sitting in my drafts. Yes, still unruly, but it somehow seems timely to launch on this Feast of the Visitation when Mary makes haste through the dangerous hill country of Judea to be of service to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, carrying in her womb the world-consecrating Christ]

I went to a restaurant several summers ago with my wife while we were traveling, and the restaurant owner, who is an eastern European immigrant, came to our table to ask how things were. We told her how much we liked the food and the atmosphere and especially the service. She said, “Good!” And my wife said, “It’s hard to find good service these days, you know?” The floodgates opened and she spoke her mind. I wrote my recollection of it later in my journal:

Yes, Brittany is one of my best. She’s very good and been here for seven years. But you know you’re right it isn’t easy to find good help anymore. I’ve been in this business for many years and can tell you that in the last ten years or so finding good employees gets harder and harder. Makes business harder to run. My experience is few younger people really want to work hard and to pay their dues first, you know what I mean? They’re unreliable, come in late, always want to take time off and don’t have a sense of responsibility, accountability. You know, a sense of commitment to this business. I try to give my employees a sense of ownership. But it’s a revolving door. I try to pay well and be fair and and reward hard work, you know? But if they won’t do the work and stick with it, what can I do? And it’s not like there’s a surplus of jobs.

They show up late day after day and so I have to fire them. They stay out late at night partying and then can’t get up. But the hardest part is so many of them don’t take criticism. They get very offended if you criticize their performance. Come on! So how can you get better? Everything offends them that doesn’t say, “oh you’re awesome,” you know? It’s crazy. Their moms and dads did them a bad deal, I’d say. My mom and dad raised me to be tough and take criticism and work hard and don’t expect anyone to do things for you. They were tough on me because they knew life is tough. Especially for a woman. My dad would say, success is not an accident. And in this economy you can’t survive if you’re half-hearted. But then again without dedicated employees I can’t survive as a business owner. It makes me worry for the future, you know? What will happen? Where will a change come from?

Coincidentally, a few weeks after that conversation I met a young man who came up to speak to me after a talk I gave to a Theology on Tap gathering on “the universal call to holiness.” We ended up staying for over an hour talking. He told me how much my talk spoke to him and to his situation. He then recounted for me a profound experience of Jesus he had at a retreat, after which he became very committed to his Catholic faith. I asked him what he did for a living and said he had worked for the last two and a half years at a local restaurant as a server while he finished his A.A. degree and was hoping to be promoted. I told him how much my wife and I liked that restaurant, but he immediately retorted, “Yeah, sure, the food is good but what happens behind the scenes? It’s bad news.” I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He went on to share some details:

Well, there’s all kinds of crap going on. For example, sexual stuff, like, all the time. The guys watch porn on their phones constantly in the back and then show it around. Even to the girls. And there’s all kinds of sexual relationships, hookups going on all the time. Groping. People constantly talking smack behind other people’s back. It’s just crazy. When I first started I was like, seriously? At a restaurant? You really have to be so strong to resist, though, because it’s in your face all the time. Huge peer pressure. They make it seriously awkward if you refuse the sexual offers.

[I asked him how the managers allow this] Well, the shift managers just turn a blind eye. They know it’s happening but they just want peace. But when the general manager comes everybody acts saintly. And then there’s the super foul language. They’re so polite to customers and then they walk back and their mouth is like a sewer. And they make lewd comments about customers. I mean, I’m not perfect but this is some sick shit. I had no idea a restaurant could be that dysfunctional. I just keep my head down, you know? I mean, I like the work, especially serving the customers. Actually, I would love to be a manager. I know what needs to be done and I could make it better. But right now I just want to get out of there to find a more godly place where I can live my faith radically. I was thinking maybe I could work for God, for the church like you do.

He asked me what I thought. I seized the opportunity. I said:

No! Don’t start at despair and flight. And let’s get this straight — you are working for God. I am working for the institutional church, which means God has called me to be your servant. My ministry is for your mission. I work for the church but you are the church at work. On the streets. Getting employed by the church isn’t any holier, just different. In your work, where you are now, is a whole field of opportunities for greatness. For being radical. You’ve got built into your work a thousand opportunities to exercise hard virtue and to evangelize. If you just surrounded yourself with the like-minded you’ll lose that. I know it’s easier said than done, but where you are now is really where holiness begins and ends for the vast majority of Christians. Out there in the field. Faith with work boots on. Sweaty work.

I told him that this is precisely what my talk was about, was what the church at Vatican II envisioned when it raised up for a new honoring the royal dignity of world-oriented baptismal priesthood. “That’s where Vatican II wanted the epicenter of the new evangelization to be: secular saints.” I added, “Remember what I said, that Baptism and Confirmation set in motion a vocation and a mission to run crazed and headlong out into the midst of the world’s ruins and engage in God’s rebuilding project. THAT is what Catholics mean when they use the word salvation.” He said, “I always thought salvation was of souls.” I said:

Yes, but God doesn’t only want to save your soul, but your body also. And with your body everything you do in the body, which connects you to the whole material world and everyone in it. Even the sewer-mouthed pervs and the nasty gropers. God put you with them for a purpose. Just by being a man of prayer in that restaurant. Just by your refusal to participate in the stuff they do, every day during your shift, makes a huge statement. And your being a normal guy, hard working, honest, and whatever else you bring — people will totally notice. Yeah, some will find it irritating, some won’t care because they’re too self-absorbed to notice. But somebody’s taking note and you never can know what effects God is using you for. You have the best pulpit you could ever get. The only one most of these folks will ever see. A quiet homily.

And remember, the world is only always conquered by Christ one field at a time, one life at a time. But once He gains a field, He’s got a base from which He can launch His revolution. But it takes time. Like a long, gentle and soaking rain.

He reiterated his enthusiasm over being able to assume a greater leadership role at the restaurant, and said that he had gained the respect of many of the employees just because he’s consistent. I continued:

Commitment to this mission from Jesus demands a rugged vision of the lay vocation to be salt, light and leaven in the world. To make the Kingdom of God present and effective. To detonate the J-bomb right where you’re at in the field of battle. Not in the sanctuary but in the field. We need to have a church sanctuary that calls us back in from the battle, to re-arm us, feed us, tend our wounds, help us re-strategize, energize us with pep talks. And where we offer all of the spoils of victory to God. But the laity are commanded at the end of Mass — remember I said that the “Go!” at the end of Mass is an imperative, command verb? — to leave the protected sanctuary and exit into the exposed front lines.

Your restaurant is the perfect arena where your own secular genius can bring about, in ways great and small, a new culture. The same way the Master did, by courageously facing the world with love that’s sometimes stripped naked, beaten, bloodied, spat on, laughed at, rejected, crucified between criminals. And remember Jesus’ initial success stats: only two among all those who surrounded Him on the day of His Passion were converted — the Good Thief and the Centurion. And both were bad dudes before they met Jesus.

Christ-culture, which flows from a splintered Cross and an empty tomb, is not simply about being religious. It includes commitment to hard labor, being a man of your word, being just, fair, chaste, courageous, service-minded, sober, dedicated to excellence in your profession. It includes peace, joy, self-control, generosity. It means being a Christian gentleman. A lost art. All that eloquently proclaims the Gospel of Work and creates a culture that gives Jesus breathing room.

In the early years of Christianity, apologists, who are theologians who defended the faith, would write their defense of Christians to the pagan rulers and would say things like: “Look, Christianity brings all kinds of perks to the Empire. In Christians you have exemplary citizens who live lives of quiet and heroic virtue, who pray for the emperor, who don’t lie or steal or cheat or have sex outside of marriage, who don’t abort their babies, who care for the poor and sick and elderly, who cultivate peace. And all of this is a testimony to the truth of their religion.” Just think if your restaurant was staffed entirely by employees like that — it would make for a more successful business!

That’s the new Kulturkampf the church needs to unleash in society at the end of every Mass: “Go! Be sent! Be cultural revolutionaries, all of you!” The church calls this mission “consecrating the world to God.” To consecrate means to re-claim something for God’s purposes, to make the world the way God wants it to be. Consecrating finds its most perfect expression in the Holy Eucharist. You know, when the bread and wine are consecrated they belong to Jesus entirely, absolutely. But even more specific, in the Eucharistic consecration the Son of God makes Himself claims the bread and wine for His own in a very specific mode: they are His at the moment He hands over His Body to be broken by us and as He sheds His Blood for us. In other words, consecration is joining Jesus as He labors to love and redeem a corrupt, depraved, vicious, ungrateful and perverse rabble, making of that rabble a holy communion.

So let me just say that before you settle on leaving, be sure you first embrace this truth of your faith. Make sense? Look, God has entrusted you with the work of tending a small plot of His Vineyard on 2254 State Street, for 40 hours each week. He’s hoping you can make it bear some good fruit for Him. It’s a vineyard, which means tilling hard soil, clearing stones, digging furrows, planting seeds, praying for rain, hedging, training, pruning, fertilizing. So it’s brutally hard work in the blistering sun. But this is your glory as a layman, the moment of your greatness, the Colosseum of your martyrdom, the way in which Christ continues His conquest of the world from the Cross. Man, you get to bring into that godless space God. Is that amazing? And if we take the Bible seriously, right, it seems God seriously enjoys getting invitations to dine in a den of sin and raise holy hell. [laughs]

All that said, you will absolutely need to find a community of faith for support and encouragement in your parish, or wherever, as a base for your mission. You said have a passion to move up to management, right? And, although it will never be easy or perfect, just think of the influence you could have there. I suspect there’s a calling in that desire. As they say, “If not now, when? If not you, who? If not there, where?” The church needs passionately faith-filled people like you to stay in the world and not just drain out into ministry. I love ministry, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, not for most. The world doesn’t need a brain drain of Christ’s mind. First bloom where you’re planted, and then you can discern God’s will.

My advice in sum? Pray in place and stay put. Just see what happens, what fruits come.

He seemed very enthusiastic and encouraged as we finished our conversation and he gave me his email address and said he wanted to meet again. We did. I gave him the name of a priest I knew would support him and asked him, as is my custom, if he minded my sharing the outlines of his story to benefit others. He said that was fine as long as I kept it anonymous. I wrote him an email the next day and ended with a quote from St. John Paul II:

In particular, two temptations can be cited which [the laity] have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.

I also included the Twenty One Pilots song, Not Today, which colorfully captures the struggle we have with God (“You”) when we sense He is calling us out of our comfort zone and asking us to stop hiding from our mission to transform the world. I’m glad TØP said yes to that mission!

Every Catholic family, and every Catholic institution responsible for forming young men and women should have this burning at the core of its mission: to cultivate faithful and engaged citizens capable of becoming passionate Christophers in the world, carrying Christ into culture, politics, business, economics, science, sales, you name it. Once planted there in the public square, Christ, like King Midas, can refine the world’s alloy into the purest of gold by His incarnate touch. And we are His incarnate touch.

That is where change will come from.

Fr. Humanity

Fr. John

Recently, a priest who served on the formation faculty at Notre Dame Seminary died of complications arising from a rather routine surgery. His name was Father John Arnone. He was only 49 years old when he died and had served as a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 17 years. He had anticipated the possibility of his death by putting his affairs in order before his surgery, preparing all the details for his funeral and penning a profoundly beautiful farewell to all whom he loved and served — including a plea that those he had offended in life kindly forgive him.

He was a jolly and kind man, very personable and relate-able. It seemed to me that almost everyone in the area knew him, even the lady who cuts my hair at Super Cuts. When she found out he had been transferred to the Seminary from her parish, she said (with her fantastically thick NOLA accent): “Oh, dawlin, let me tell you about Father John. He’s a trip. What a good man. You know, when my cousin was sick in the hospital, he…”

He was, from all accounts, an icon of hospitality who made everyone feel at home. I heard quite a number of stories from people who said that he had been instrumental in their return to the practice of the faith and had provided in their lives, at a crucial time, the healing and reconciling presence of the church. From my own limited experience with him, but more with the litany of testimonies I listened to, it was clear that Fr. John served as a sign of the humanity of the church and of the humanity of a God who is not only above us and beyond us, but for us and with us. Fr. John’s humanity was not merely an instrument of grace, like a cipher, but a bearer of grace, like Mary, revealing in his own life that holiness makes us not less but more genuinely human. Yes, people want God from their priests, but they want “God with skin on,” as Venerable Fulton Sheen loved to say.

After attending the Vespers wake service at the Seminary, which was deeply moving, I stood outside across the street from the Seminary and watched the procession of humanity stream into the church. On and on and on. I thought of how many lives he had touched as a spiritual father, brother and friend to so many people. Baptisms, weddings, confessions, Masses, anointings, funerals, blessings, homilies, kind words, smiles, advice, late night visits to the hospital. I then thought of the tremendous power of every human life to impact others’ lives, for good or for ill, and how that legacy will await us in the next life. Glory to you, O God of justice and mercy!

I imagined, as I prayed for him, all those to whom he had brought good in this life were waiting to greet him in Paradise, in a similar procession, filled with God-joined gratitude. Whatever sins he had committed in life, it seemed to me, would be covered amply in death by the endless echoes of love resounding from all those people (1 Pet. 4:8!) whose voices would at once be the very voice of Christ (Matt. 25:31-46!).

But it was just before the funeral began, as I sat in the only available space — the cry room! — that I would receive what I considered to be the most remarkable compliment about Fr. John’s ministry. A gentleman with a long white beard, who appeared to be in his late 70’s, asked me if I knew Fr. John personally. I explained to him our work together at the Seminary and my admiration for him. The man then said to me:

I knew him as well. Though not well. But enough to know the man. I’m a good read of people, good at a quick size-up. You see, I’m an old crotchety fellow, not too pleasant to be around. But Fr. John, well, he was genuine. The real deal, you know? And one of the only people I’ve ever known in life who listened to me. Not just heard me, but listened. You know, so well that his advice back to me struck me hard. And I’m a better man for it, though I don’t think he ever knew that. Does now. It’s just amazing what can happen when you take the time to listen to someone, you know? You be sure to tell the seminarians that. And tell them to look out for old geezers like me and don’t write us off. We may seem tough on the outside, but we need religion just like everyone else. But we’ll be the last to admit it. But when he sat with me those times he did during some rough times — and let me tell you Fr. John always made time for you — it was as if God Himself was listening. And I’m here today to thank God for him.

Thank God for him. As Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” — where charity and love prevail, that is.

Empty, free

Through the recreation and leisure made possible by travel, people are restored and renewed, body and spirit. They return home to family and work with a new perspective and enthusiasm for life.” –St. John Paul II

A few rambling thoughts as I sit outside alone listening to the waves.

My family and I are on vacation at the beach, blanking out the rest of life for a time to focus with great intensity on nothing much. The word vacation comes from the Latin, vacare, which means “to be empty, free.” Early this morning I thought on that. Emptied of the cares and anxieties of life to recreate amid the carefree lilies of the field. Freed from toil and labor to find rest, refreshment and renewal. Freed from the strictures of efficiency wherein love is free to carry out its rebellion against the reduction of worth to usefulness. Emptied in order to be filled with wonder and gratitude for the sheer gratuitousness of existence. Emptied of stale routines to receive vibrant insights only to be had by stepping aside from the relentless flow of life. Freed from compulsive or addictive habits to play.

To play. Play is (I imagine) the ability to subordinate usefulness and purpose, pragmatism and efficiency to love, joy, laughter, music, beauty and spontaneous freedom bound only by limitless truth. Like art, play permits a freer expression of the human spirit’s limitless desire for the “fullness of being” than this life allows. Those who cannot play cannot pray, as prayer is consent to God’s unchained love, joy, laughter, music, beauty, freedom, truth, life. Which is why vacations should very naturally inspire prayer.

Josef Pieper famously said, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” On vacation with my family, I encounter the dignity of unjustified existence. Of existence justified by the gift of God alone. I am “at one with myself” only when I embrace this most fundamental truth of who I am: All is gift. That means that doing is always subsequent to the primacy of grace. Work, if it is not to become enslaving or dehumanizing, must freely flow out of gratitude, serving as my unique amplification of the gift.

I know a woman who prides herself on working seven days a week with very few vacations free from work. Once when we were talking, I complimented her on a quality she had. She said, “thanks, no offence but I just can’t believe that.” I was a bit stunned and asked her what she meant, and she just opened wide the floodgates.

She told me that it is very hard for her to receive a compliment or a gift. When she receives them, she said, she then feels even more burdened by a terrible debt to “earn” the compliment or “justify” the gift. They are more of a burden for her than a benefit, and, she said very candidly, she would rather not receive them at all. As we spoke more about this she said, “Tom, the reality is that underneath all of this I don’t feel worthy of anything good. I grew up in a high-achieving family where we were all judged by each other — who is better or worse at sports, smarter in school, harder working, tougher. I am burdened all the time by guilt and the need to prove myself to everyone. It’s all internal. I hate it, but I can’t seem to free myself. Even when I pray, since I feel that God is judging me the same way, is useless. Just makes it all worse, so I just say my prayers and don’t go too deep. So I figure it’s easier for me to wear myself down with work, shift the debt to others who then, I imagine at least, feel indebted to me because I exceeded their work and did more for them than they did for me. Better to wear myself down with work than to face the fact that I feel empty and worthless inside.”

She shed tears for most of the conversation. Then she said at the end, “And you know, Tom, you are free to share this with people if you think it would help.” I thanked her and asked if I could help her think through at least the spiritual part of her struggle. She said, “No, thanks so much. Because then I would be indebted to you. You see how sick this is?”

Saint of Joy

St. Philip stepping on a Cardinal hat

Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri, 16th century Italian reformer-priest who was known for his joy, sense of humor and offbeat spirit. Philip, patron saint of comedians, demonstrates wonderfully how sanctity preserves and amplifies, even as it purifies, the unique character of each person’s personality. I have always loved this saint and begged for a double-portion of his spirit.

He is the saint known for telling jokes in the confessional to break the tension, throwing picnics in the middle of the street between visits to churches, breaking out into silly children’s songs in the presence of stuffy cardinals, shaving off half his beard before a meeting with a wealthy Roman family, walking out of the Confessional laughing uncontrollably, kicking balls through the streets of Rome dressed in his cassock as he skipped and sang with his followers, carrying bouquets of flowers and distributing them as he went along, intentionally mispronouncing Latin words in the Mass in the presence of a gravely serious scholar-bishop, making a priest in his Order who took himself too seriously sing a dirge at a wedding breakfast, wearing red jerseys over his black cassock, giving out crazy penances (e.g. to a priest known for eloquence, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon) and tossing around like a frisbee the cardinal hat offered him by the Pope.

Thank God we have this saint!

But what made this man a saint and not simply a cut-up was his deep humility and his intense love for God and people. His humor was never used to knock down, cut or wound, but to build up and wake up a sleepy church. To thaw out the Frozen Chosen. He was a Fool for Christ whose prophetic mission was to remind the faithful that joy, as Fr. Chardin once said, is the infallible sign of the presence of God and the premier indication that your spiritual life is in good order. His jovial manner was lived in service to lifting hearts and leading others into a place of light, hope and conversion to the Gospel of joy. Above all, he wanted to free the Roman clergy from the shackles of cynicism, ladder climbing and dour seriousness that confuses solemnity with somberness.

Once while he was praying on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1544 a globe of fire appeared in front of him and entered his mouth. Afterwards, he felt his heart swell in his chest — without pain — and was so overwhelmed by an intense feeling of love for God that he fell to the ground yelling, “Enough, enough, Lord! I can bear no more!” It became immediately apparent to him that the superabundance of joy that filled him was meant to be given away, shared with all he would meet along the way. He had been commissioned to be “drunk with love” (Acts 2:13-15!) by the God whose love is joy, to permit divine joy to break into a world grown old, bitter, tired and angry in sin.

Philip the priest-saint is an electric sign to clergy. How desperately we need deacons and priests and bishops and popes who ingest Fire and are filled with joy, whose lives — uniquely — cry out to both church and world: Sursum corda! “Lift up your hearts!”

In the words of Pope Benedict addressing his fellow clergy:

It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.

Let us sing!

Jubilate Deo omni terra (shout joyfully to God all the earth).
Servite Domino in laetitia (serve the Lord in gladness).
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!

Mother’s Day 2017

Statue at Castelpetroso. pinimg.com

To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war. — Pope Francis

Happy Mother’s Day!

For today’s reflection, I will not claim to pronounce my wisdom on motherhood but only share the witness of a few mothers I admire immensely.

I was sitting at lunch the other day at work and someone asked, “Who are the moms you admire most that you know personally?” Without hesitation I said, “My wife, my mom, my sister.” Later that night, I thought of a running list of others whom I have known over the years. Too many to recall. That night I wrote a rambling reflection in my journal:

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These women I think of here as I write — so many I have known! — are women with biological children, adopted children, foster moms and moms with ‘spiritual children’ whom they have taken into their care, their love, their attention, their heart, their prayer.These women, wildly diverse in so many ways, demonstrate the strength of tenderness and the ferocity of selfless love. They are each flawed and fall, grow weary and faint. No idealizing here. How many of them I have listened to share with me their own sense of failure and lament bitterly their own sins and failings. Suffer under the weight of inner trials and tortures of the mind. Yet each of them is, somehow, by indefinable grace, undaunted by their own fissures and fractures, making even of these channels of grace for others. Just like the song says: “I get knocked down, but I get up again; You are never gonna keep me down.”

Their very biorhythms are written in the language of life-giving sacrifice, of love that carries the weak, feeds the hungry, gives a home to the homeless. These women are nurturing and demanding, protective and encouraging. They inspire trust yet worry, demand their children get enough rest yet exhaust themselves, empty themselves out in order to fill, delay gratification to make sure needs get met. As with their bodies, their minds and hearts are always turned toward the well-being of their children. Circadian rhythms inscribed in waking love. They don’t seek accolades for the thousand duties they perform every day, but dole them out when appropriate to encourage their children in virtue. Their need to be liked by their children is superseded by their steely resolve to wade into the thickets of relentless resistance to raise virtuous children — the unsung martyrdom of tough love. Indeed, they undergo the trials and agony of gestation, labor and delivery throughout the entire span of each child’s life, and beyond.

Archbishop Romero’s words beautifully describe these women:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
When I was 4 years old, my mom tells me, she was pulling me in a wagon and when she turned back to me and smiled, I said to her: “I love to look at your face.” Mothers are living sacraments of God’s highest attribute — His tender compassion, raham. In her face, the primal vision of God after birth. In her face, God renounces invisibility, refuses to hide His beauty and discloses His most secret countenance. There we are meant to rest. Psalm 131:2:
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul.

When Patti had her first miscarriage, she suffered in body and in spirit in ways I cannot even hope to express worthily in language. All women who have suffered this – or the death of a child at any age — know this well. 2 Cor. 2:12: “I heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” No facile words of piety can dull the pain of death in the womb, but can only make it redemptive. She cried out to God as she miscarried in a way, with a depth that I could never fathom. Only receive and echo. I know that this depth of prayer is reserved to mothers. Even Jesus, as New Adam, needed His Mother by the Cross, New Eve, to “fill out” His suffering and perfect His prayer of compassionate love crying out to the Father.

When Patti wailed aloud with heaving sobs, “Why?” … I could not speak, could not breathe, could not ease her pain, not fix. Could only accompany. I grabbed hold of the tassel of her prayer, I am saved in her childbirth. She labored our child into Life, the universe shook.

On her merits, womb of His merits, all my hope rests.

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I asked four women I know to text me in a sentence or two what they love most about motherhood. I’ll let them have the last word:
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Thank you for asking: To be not only an intimate witness to life unfolding, but to the Holy Spirit manifesting in a unique way in each child. It’s breathtaking, and incredibly humbling.
Or:
Purest joy.
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Hmmmm. I could say it’s picking out the chocolate in their Halloween bags to save them from themselves… It’s hard to put into words; for me, it’s being given the ineffable gift of a human being who is part of yourself and at the same time completely other and God’s and witnessing them becoming the sons and daughters the Lord loved them in to being to become, because of my being their mother and in spite of that too!
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Being a mother is empowering in a way that no other thing in my life has allowed, empowering in the sense of “tikkun olam” – fixing the world on a the physical ground level. It is like the individual transformation that includes training and intuition, to find a lost child in a store and gather them to restore them to their mother (not creepy but motherhood); to tell any teenager, mine or random, “what are you thinking, that will kill you?!?” (not a meddler, but a mother); to tell young college students “is that worth losing your integrity over?” (not a moralist but a mother); to fuss over tired men & women who show up in my home-with food and rest (not a seductress, but a mother). It is not to say that these things cannot be done by women who aren’t mothers, but I can get to the business quickly without explaining while someone else simply says, “no worries, she’s a mom.” And that says it all.
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I suppose one of the best parts of being a mother for me is being able to love so completely such amazing human beings and know that I had a part in their creation and formation. I am in awe of my children! Such sweetness, such glimpses of God himself, is so beautiful to experience as a mother.
Awesome.

“Without Sunday, we cannot…”

[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:

One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.

To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.

It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.

So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.

And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.

If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.

And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!

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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:

It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.

I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.

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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:

When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.

When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.

What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.

That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!

I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]

Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.

Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift: