The Cross: Critique of the Curse

Bl Miguel Pro awaiting execution

[repost 2015]

I love the psalms. They teach us the meaning of prayer as nothing else does, inspired by the Spirit and written in the blood, sweat and tears of the sons and daughters of Abraham. The psalms are what Christians means by prayer, and so they populate and animate all of our liturgies and give basic shape to all of our prayerful devotions. As a rabbi I once knew in Hartford taught me, “When a Jew is asked, ‘What does it mean to pray?’ he always answers, ‘Psalms.'” The Catechism #2584 calls the psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”

Even the Our Father, the only prayer Jesus taught His disciples, is really nothing more than, as my Scripture professor in grad school once said, “the pocket-sized Jewish prayer for uneducated and educated alike; a peasant’s psalter. 150 psalms in 7 petitions.” That blew. my. mind. In other words, the Our Father has compressed into it all the major themes of the psalms, including trust, adoration, praise, submission, contrition, lamentation, supplication. Notably missing, though, are the curse psalms. Think here, for example, of Psalm 109:6-17, prayed by the psalmist against his enemy:

Appoint a wicked man as his judge;
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged let him come out condemned;
let his prayer be considered as sin.

Let the days of his life be few;
let another man take his office.
Let his children be fatherless orphans
and his wife become a widow.

Let his children be wanderers and beggars
driven from the ruins of their home.
Let the creditor seize all his goods;
let strangers take the fruit of his work.

Let no one show him any mercy
nor pity his fatherless children.
Let all his sons be destroyed
and with them their names be blotted out.

Let his father’s guilt be remembered,
his mother’s be retained.
Let it always stand before the Lord,
that their memory be cut off from the earth.

For he did not think of showing mercy
but pursed the poor and the needy,
hounding the wretched to death.
He loved cursing; let curses fall upon him.
He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by.

An absolutely understandable human response to injustice. But in the Our Father, Jesus offers a stinging critique of the curse psalms not only by omitting their dark imprecations, but by adding a single, simple and stunning line that has no exact analogue in all of the Old Testament. As Luke 11:4 has it, “forgive us our sins [inasmuch as also] we forgive those in debt to us.” He knew very well that this would have caught the attention of His hearers, and in Matthew’s version (6:14-15) concludes this new prayer with a coda that holds in stark relief what is new:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Though this manner of expression is new, Jesus’ critique of the Old Testament tradition of cursing enemies draws on another Israelite tradition, found in its most dramatic form in the book of Jonah. Recall that Jonah, to his chagrin, is commanded by God to enter the heart of enemy territory — Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian empire which had utterly devastated the northern tribes of Israel — and invoke God’s mercy on the Assyrians by calling them to repentance before God’s impending judgment. Of course, Jonah famously rejects this call and flees, only to find himself swallowed up by a fish and spewed back on mission, still filled with resentment and anger at God.

Jesus makes it clear (Matt. 12:40f) that this prophetic tale is a (comedic) prefigurement of His own willing and passionate pursuit of us, His enemy (Rom. 5:10), into the kingdom of darkness where He is swallowed up by death and ‘spewed out’ by the Father (Rom. 6:4) to bring to the City of Man God’s unsparing mercy. On the Cross, Jesus became the object of every curse, transforming them into blessings, drinking the poison of sin to become for us the antidote that pardons every sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13-14).

In all this, Jesus sets the pattern for Christian life to lived behind enemy lines. After reconciling us with Himself, He sends us out on mission every day into our mildly or terrifyingly hostile environments to proclaim divine mercy by word, by prayer, by deed. By every means. In Baptism, and all the Sacraments, we are joined to the New Jonah, filled and empowered with God’s judgment of mercy, commanded to expend it on the undeserving, the unworthy, the unwilling, the most repulsive and repellent among those we encounter. To us, Jesus says,

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. — Luke 6:27-36

I will end with a visual reflection on forgiveness and a magnificent sung presentation of the Our Father in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, to Pope Francis during his visit to the nation of Georgia. Our. Faith. Is. Awe. Inspiring.

Matter of Trust

Sonny (Robert Duvall) yelling at God in “The Apostle.”

[Repost 2015, with Pope Francis quote added]

This story is shared with permission.

God likes to argue with us. Someone tells me: ‘But, Father, many times when I go to pray, I get angry with the Lord…’ But this also is prayer! He likes when you get angry and say what you feel to His face, because He’s a Father!          — Pope Francis

A woman in Arizona wrote me an email after reading something I had written. She shared with me her own journey to faith, as well as her story of childhood abuse. She had become Catholic a number of years ago, which, she said, sped her along the path of healing, forgiveness and the affirmation of her own dignity and worth. But, she told me, she still struggled mightily with a certain dimension of forgiveness. In her words, “I don’t know if this is kosher to say or not but I struggle to forgive God for letting all that happen to me. Sometimes I feel divided inside with a mind convinced of my faith but with my feelings filled with rage. My husband calls me a house divided. He’s right.”

While I encouraged her to seek spiritual counsel with a priest or spiritual guide, I also encouraged her (as I do often to people struggling with inner darkness) to bring this directly to God in prayer. I emailed her, “Share with Him your rage. Not to spite Him but to expose to Him the reality that is you. Go deep.” In fact, I encouraged her to bring this to the Adoration Chapel she said her parish had, “Because this issue needs to not stay separate from the most sacred space where you encounter God as a Catholic, i.e. the Eucharist.”

I told her about the Missionary of Charity nun who offered this same advice to a woman who had suffered 12 years of abuse on the streets as a prostitute, and who lived with the Sisters after being rescued. The woman was ready to become Catholic, except for the fact that she still could not reconcile the belief in God’s love with God’s silence those 12 years she suffered terrible injustices. This rescued prostitute, at the advice of the nun, spent nearly 3 hours in the Chapel weeping and asking God, “Why? Why?” She came out after her time of prayer and simply said, “Okay, I’m ready to be baptized.”

After weeks of avoiding the idea, the Arizona woman’s husband convinced her it was important for her to make this time happen. So she signed up for a certain open hour of adoration, but week after week found someone else there with her. She dared not pray so honestly with some else there, for fear of what might happen. She said she was secretly relieved each time there was someone there, as it gave her an excuse to delay longer. But one week, she was alone in the chapel. She began to ready herself for prayer, and someone walked in. Just as she was ready to give up, the man got a call and stepped out of the Chapel. So, she said, “I just dove right into the deep end. I whispered at first then spoke louder and then shouted. I cried like a baby. I think the poor man didn’t dare come back in.”

After her hour was over, she said, “I felt calm purged and my feeling was exactly the opposite of what I had feared. I feared God’s anger at my own anger but I felt only loved. No great revelations to answer specific questions why these bad things happened but I knew without a doubt I was loved to the core which was worth so much more than a thousand answers. Forgiveness suddenly seemed to be the wrong word. More like trust. In fact all I could think of was the Billy Joel song Matter of Trust. Listen to it and you’ll get what I mean.”

It’s All About You

Burn this Face in my heart, O Lord, with your loving Light!

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. — Phil. 2:3

Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the harshest;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious,
but to lowest and most despised. – St. John of the Cross

My first spiritual director, who introduced me to St. John of the Cross, offered me a view of Christian asceticism that deeply impacted the way I approached the question of self-denial — so starkly described by St John. Asceticism is the manner in which one exercises discipline in service to achieving some excellence, with Christian excellence being defined by Jesus’ commandment of love. I’ve written about my director’s take on this many times here. He drilled into me over and over that the entire purpose of all ascetical practice is to make me more capable of being other-focused, which is the soul of love. In St. John fashion, he loved to say that the premier sign of holiness is not spiritual feelings or mystical visions or prophetic words of knowledge or effusive pious-speak. He loved to quote Matthew 7:21-23 on this:

Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

The premier sign of holiness is when you find your thoughts spontaneously populated more with concern for the well-being of others than with thoughts of your own well-being. Not a concern born of a low sense of self-worth, self-hatred or co-dependency, as these all are contrary to the genuine nature of love; and are all subtly ego-centered. When you can very naturally see another’s well-being and God’s glory as coterminous, and see that another’s well-being is integral to your own, divine charity has made a home in you.

The most effective approach to growing in this posture, he said, is to litter your whole day with micro-acts of hidden self-denial that put St John’s above prescription into practice. Quietly, subtly, creatively put others first. Such a life makes flammable material for your prayer life, as the Spirit is wildly attracted to spaces emptied out by self-emptying love. In fact, he said, these secret acts of self-denial are each like a mighty cry to Heaven calling down the Holy Spirit in power to renew the face of the earth and burn into it the Face of Christ.

He also told me that he found the most fruitful of all acts of self-denial is found in controlling the tongue and in listening to others more than you speak. Especially difficult, tedious, irritating others. “And when you do speak,” he added, “remember that in the next life all that you say will be made known to all creation in the presence of God [Luke 12:3, Matt. 12:36, 2 Cor. 5:10]. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” He made me memorize Ephesians 4:29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building others up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Humble and kind

Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy. I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. — Pope Francis

Patti and I know a man who lives in New Orleans who, both of us agree, is one of the most joyful and kind people we have ever met. But not in a smiley, saccharine or giddy way. He’s rough and gruff, weathered. But when you’re with him you feel lifted, clearer, more hopeful. And amid his gruffness, he frequently dons a sly Mona Lisa smile that just makes you crack up. I’d guess he’s in his late 60’s and he and his wife have had a life strewn with hardships. Last Fall, we went to a night club to hear a local singing group and he was by chance there. The night club was in a tough part of town, so afterward he insisted on walking us to our car, saying, “Look, if you didn’t notice you two don’t exactly blend in here. I know these type out here, and I’m packing and you’re not. Enough said.” As we walked along he gave us a summary of his life’s philosophy, which reminded me so much of my own grandfather’s advice to me years ago. Common sense, hard work ethic, family first, other focused, chin up and God centered, but without any pious frosting. Faith with dirty work boots on, as Dorothy Day put it.

As we neared our car, I mentioned how much I appreciated his joyful spirit. He stopped walking and said, “I’m not a man of means. My wife and I did the best we could for our kids. Here’s how I see it. I came out of my mama naked and poor and I’ll go to the grave the same way. Every day I remember it’s all on loan to me. When you know you got nothing, you’ve always got everything to gain. Everything you get, every day, no matter what it is or isn’t, is always more than you had or deserve. You take the good with the bad and bless the Lord. And the good Lord also says, do your neighbor a good turn and you do it for me. That way you always remember it wasn’t yours to begin with. Live like that, then it’s all good.”

Just watching him as he spoke, I thought of St. Therese’s line, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all [mystical] ecstasies.”

After we parted ways he turned back, waved and said, “Y’all be good now! And lock your doors!” Then he kept walking and did a little bell-kick. As we got in the car Patti said to me, “You know I always say that humility to me is being totally unaware of yourself when you do good for others? He’s exactly what I’m talking about. No pretense.”

An AME pastor once said to me, “Humility ain’t about thinking lesser of yourself, it’s thinking about yourself less. It’s not about looking down on yourself, but about lifting others up.”

Make me able to love

All family life is a “shepherding” in mercy. — Pope Francis

Yesterday in class, I was speaking on the Sacrament of Marriage and its redemptive character. I reviewed my notes early in the morning, and prayed about how best to express the points I was making. The focus of my lecture was the sense in which marriage and family life “sacramentalize” — make present and effective — the undying love of God revealed in Jesus. I was exhausted and feeling inadequate to the challenge of teaching that day. As I spoke that to God, those dreaded words Jesus spoke to St. Paul sprang to mind,

My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness (1 Cor. 12:9).

As I sat with that, what struck me hard was the stark realism of the Christian vision of divine love which, rather than keeping an antiseptic distance from the messiness of human life, appears most fully in the midst of dysfunction, weakness, failure, betrayal, division, hatred, death. Far from romanticizing or idealizing marital love, Sacraments thrust God right into the middle of our thorny thickets and tangled relationships, setting Him to work repairing, healing, strengthening all who open themselves in faith to His power. I immediately thought of the words of theologian, Fr. John Behr:

Forcefully stated, this means that in and through the action that expresses all the weakness, impotence, and futility of our created human nature—our subjection to death—Christ shows himself to be truly divine, voluntarily taking this upon himself. As one tries to comprehend this, one is simply at a loss for words. Perhaps not surprising, then, is our all-too-human response to the revelation of God in the crucified and exalted Christ, understood through the Scriptures by the power of the Spirit, to talk about something else—to make theology into an abstract discourse or, like Peter before the passion, to try to separate Christ from the cross

And try to separate marriage and family life from the cross. I then thought this is why St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians identifies marriage with the crucifixion — because God calls the couple to holiness by sharing in His sufferings and imitating His sacrificial covenant love; because God calls the couple to cry out to Him from the depths of their weakness, impotence, and futility; and because God calls the couple, as sinful perpetrators of the crucifixion, to receive His redeeming, restoring, transforming love. Marriage is indeed a mystery immersed in mercy.

I wrote this prayer in the margins of my notes,

You are a fire always burning but never consuming; you are a fire consuming in your heat all of my soul’s selfish love; you are a fire warming all chill and giving light to my darkness. Make me able to love your daughter, Patti, with your love, in all my imperfect love, that along with my feeble love she might also receive your perfect love.

Then I searched YouTube for a video I use when I teach marriage workshops, and happened on this:

Ran up

In a homily on preached 9/16/01, a homily I will never forget, Msgr. Slade Crawford said, in a slow, paced, rhythmic tone:

…Those firefighters. Those firefighters. They ran up the stairs while everyone else ran down. What made them run up? [pause, choked up] No greater love. [pause] That. That. That is Christ in us, the hope of glory. That’s real glory. Unfading glory. In the midst of the ruins of a culture of death rises a Phoenix, burning with life. The resurrection. That’s for us, my dear friends. That’s for us to be. To do. Today. Here. Now.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14) …

Let’s roll.

The gift of a lovely thought

“If instead of a gem, or even of a flower, we would cast the gift of a lovely thought into the heart of a friend, that would be giving, as the angels, I suppose, must give.” — George MacDonald

Back in the early 1990’s, I befriended a priest from Brooklyn. He was a character. Chain smoker, sarcastic wit, self-deprecating and a fantastic Confessor who would give me pithy insights into my perennial struggles. Once for a penance he said, “I want you, for the rest of your life, to do two things. First, every day resolve to read, even if it’s just a sentence, the thoughts of someone wiser than you. That’s an easy one, because it won’t take a lot for you to find someone wiser that you [I laughed]. Second, I want you to offer at least one person a day a thought that will make their life better, something encouraging. That one will take a little more work. Be creative. The first will make sure you always have the something fresh to offer in the second, and the second will make sure that the first serves its ultimate purpose. Intellectuals can be an arrogant bunch, like you [laughter], but if you keep this practice up it will keep your priorities in order.” Then he introduced me to St. Thomas Aquinas’ marvelous saying,

Just as it is greater to illuminate something than merely to shine, so it is greater to pass on to others what we have contemplated than just to contemplate.

My grandfather said something similar to me in a letter: “Remember the sign of a truly great man is not that others leave his presence thinking he’s so great, but thinking that they are great.”