Sheer grace

[This post from 2013 came to mind as I showed the video below to a friend last week]

“There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering.”— St. Ambrose

I met a woman recently who shared with me the story of her husband’s infidelity, and their subsequent journey of reconciliation. It was breathtaking. I asked her if I could share the insights from the story with my readers and she graciously agreed. Here is what I later wrote down, written in her voice.

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It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a slow drift, years. We had just grown apart, gotten busy, had developed other interests. We got comfortable is the best way to say it. Nothing ever bad or hurtful, he was kind to me and I to him. And I just thought, okay, maybe this is just what happens for some couples. I had the kids and friends and church, and I found ways to deal with no intimacy. But I can see now that we both just stopped fighting for each other, for what our marriage was. And then he did that and it shattered my entire world.

After all of this happened, and he left the other woman, I found out I had cancer and then he lost his job. It seemed like everything we had relied on, the comforts and securities of life, had been ripped out of our hands. And suddenly everything we had once thought important and safe just fell away. What we did have was each other, and we had our children, family, friends, faith. I know its sounds so cliche, but only when everything collapses do you really see life is so damned fragile, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Clearly it took that to shake us awake. Thanks be to God it didn’t tear us apart in the end. That’s sheer grace, let me tell you.

During the time of my health crisis, I could see so clearly that our priorities before all this happened were totally out of whack. The frenetic press of life we kept up to acquire material comforts, our compulsive busyness (which was really distracting us from our misery), taking each other for granted, all of this had made it so easy for anything to pull the rug out from under us. We had lost each other over the years and he fell. But really, we fell. I can see both of our responsibility for it now. Never could have then.

After I found out about his cheating, I was so angry and bitter. I wanted to punish him bad. I wanted to spend all of his money, ruin his reputation and leave him impoverished. Even after he came back and begged my forgiveness when he’d left her. But then the cancer struck, and he lost his job. And everything just looked so different.

I remember one time we sat alone in the oncologist’s office waiting forever for the doctor to come, and we were just silent. I know he was guilt ridden, and I was angry, felt alone and terrified. You could have cut the air with a knife. And then he just broke down, and then I broke down, and we embraced and sobbed. I forgave him, and he received that through his tears. We knew all we had was each other. Again, sheer grace.

For me, now, that’s where God is most present — between two people who having nothing left but love. But each other.

When you share this, my message to everyone is, check your priorities. If everything was taken away from you, but you could keep just one thing, what would be left? What would it be? Then ask yourself, is your life built around that one thing, or something else? Fight for it. Don’t wait. And ask God to help before it’s too late.

Never say you are too busy for Him

[re-post 2014]

My secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to him is loving him. — St. Teresa of Calcutta

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity, they taught me four things.

First, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring lasting hope to others because you have pulled your anchor out of the immovable Rock.

Second, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring enduring love to others because you have ceased to receive that love from its inexhaustible Wellspring.

Third, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring Jesus to others because you have ceased to know Him, and have settled with only knowing of Him.

Fourth, without prayer you lose the capacity to lead others to trust in God because you no longer trust Him. You only spread cynicism, discouragement, doubt and despair.

Yes, you can’t give what you don’t have. No prayer, no God. Know prayer, know God. No wonder St. Teresa of Avila reminded her Sisters so often that the devil has no better strategy for bringing us down than to lead us away from prayer, as he knows well that when we are prayer-less, we are powerless and alone. But when we pray, the evil spirits tremble in terror as we — made royal priests in baptism — permit God’s redemptive power free entry into creation and unleash the triumph of the Cross.

Once when she was in the outhouse, St. Teresa tells us, she was praying and the devil appeared to her, furious that she would not cease praying even there. With her sharp wit, she replied to him, “Don’t worry about that, what goes up is for God, what goes down is for you.”

Or there’s the 4th century story of a desert monk in Syria who, in a vision, saw a demon urging another demon to go and awaken a sleeping monk to torture him with dark thoughts. And he heard the other demon say, “I cannot do this, for one time when I awakened him he got up and burned me by singing psalms and praying.”

To reinforce the primacy of prayer in the work we did, the Sisters had this quote from John 15:5 framed in my room, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Sister who was my supervisor left a handwritten note in my box my last day there, “Be faithful to daily prayer, Brother Tom. Cling to God. Fill yourself with Him so you can give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, love to the loveless, hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless. Never say you are too busy for Him. Carry within you the Kingdom everywhere you go and speak often to the indwelling King. God bless you.”

Thank you for offering

[I had written this post a while ago, but did not feel it was complete. A friend of mine sent me this quote today. Now it’s complete, on this Feast of the Presentation]

The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.  — Pope Benedict XVI

A week after my wife experienced her first miscarriage, the pastor of our parish asked me and my wife Patti if we would be willing to bring up the gifts of bread and wine during Mass at the Offertory. As we brought the gifts up and approached him, he said very quietly to us, “Thank you for giving your child back to God,” and blessed us.

When he placed those gifts on the Altar, returning them to God, I knew they were no longer ours. They never were. Living Fire, salty tears mingled.

It was an extraordinary moment to feel so viscerally the seamless unity of human life and Divine Liturgy, of tragedy and redemption; to hear God gently inviting us to let go; to discover in the darkness of the death of your child the kindly light of hope found in a simple gesture of offering the castles and ruins of life to God for safe keeping.

It was also extraordinary to experience such tenderness in that priest, such sensitivity to suffering. While I don’t remember much about the many (excellent) homilies he gave over the years we knew him, I will always remember those words.

As he prayed the preface to the Eucharistic prayer and came to the words, “Lift up your hearts!” — I thought, yes, I have lifted my heart up to the Lord. Our child. “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you” (Philemon 12).

May you, our child, rest with the Son in the love of your Father unto the endless ages of eternity. Pray we one day see your face, His Face, in love’s triumph. Amen.

God likes stories

God as an Architect, 1794 by William Blake

Why did God create mankind? Because God likes stories. — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

This past weekend I gave a retreat for adults preparing for sacramental reception into the Catholic Church. It was a great blessing and very humbling to be among such passionate seekers. The retreat ended with the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which I thought was an especially powerful crescendo. Afterwards, one of the participants in the retreat said to me something like this,

The images and stories you shared with us brought the Mass so alive for me that I wanted to shout out to everyone else around me, ‘Do you see what I see?’ Especially at the Consecration of the Host, all your words about the crazy love God has for us, and all the amazing people you told us about, seemed to flash out of the Host. It all made new sense to me. It was so cool. I actually wish Father Ray could have just stopped and held the Host up for a really long time so we could take it all in. It so in my face that Jesus is the center of absolutely everything Catholics are about.

I sat in a coffee shop the next day and prayerfully thought about her words, and her sincerity. How incredibly important storytelling is for internalizing the faith, precisely because it translates abstract ideas into the concrete and narrative shape of human life. Stories put skin and bones on the truths of faith, wrap them in imagination and embed themselves deeply in our memories. Life is lived not in the form of precepts, bullet points or concepts, but in the form of a constantly unfolding story. Once God spoke creation into existence in the beginning, a never-ending story was born; and He remains the primary Storyteller. It’s His pedagogy, and I have tried mightily to imitate it in my own.

I also thought, the Incarnation is the premier sign of God’s irrepressible penchant for storytelling, and of His desire to elicit our gifts in co-scripting history’s epic drama. Jesus, God and Man, is the story of God; exegete of the Father (John 1:18 uses the Greek verb exēgēsato). It makes so much sense that Jesus, Word-made-flesh, was a master storyteller who wove eternity into the fabric of time through His metaphors, analogies, parables. And even more by His very short life, His death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, and His glorious coming at the end of history. Jesus of Nazareth is the defining narrative by which the entire history of the cosmos is to be rightly understood, the final word on man’s dark story of sin and death. Jesus is the theo-drama, i.e. the story of God in search of man.

Then I thought — with copious awe — this Story has at its heart the crucifixion of God-with-us which, well, says volumes about what we are to expect as creation follows Him toward the re-creating resurrection. Per crucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light.” The new creation passes by way of an economy of repentant humility and surrendering trust in the Father’s will to deliver us from every evil by drawing from evil definitive, imperishable good stored up for us in heaven.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Even more, beginning with Baptism, and then in all of the Church’s Sacraments (which you might say are the mystical narration of this theo-drama), we who believe in this Story plunge headlong into the Spirit of the dying and rising God, who cries out within us, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15) — “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20). Think of the Mass this way, with the Words of Institution in the Mystical Supper pulsing at its heart, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it…Take this, all of you, and drink from it it.”

In the Mass, that paschal narrative transubstantiates the whole world into food and drink, because our God is a God who fills the hungry with good things. Which is why our judgment will be based on feeding and drinking (Matt. 25:35). Credo.


My God. My simple act of trusting faith every day, my feeble “let it be,” my whispered “Amen” to this theo-drama is what all of creation waits on, is what speaks Light into the darkness again and again and again. And the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is where it all finds its perfect completion. This is the vocation of the Church in the world. May every human being come to know and believe in this majestic dignity and hope that is theirs in Christ.

After thinking on all of this, I thought of a powerful skit I have posted here before that dramatizes the whole Story from creation to redemption, watching it again with fresh eyes.

Duty to Smile

[Re-post from 2014]

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of joy.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

The other day someone said to me, “Thank you for helping me smile again.” For me, that is high praise. It reminded me of advice I received many years ago from my grandfather, purveyor of wisdom and writer of lengthy handwritten letters to his young grandson:

…One of the most important things you will do every day of your life is leave the world a better place than you found it. If you can say at the end of each day you lightened someone’s burden, you can say more than most. Our world has come to worship the Ego, the unholy trinity of me, my and mine. “I” is the new Tower of Babel. But you have to be better, Tommy. Take the road less traveled … You’ll always have reasons to complain or be bitter. Save those for God or a trusted friend. Don’t poison the air. Be known as “that man who lifts you up” and not as “that man who brings you down.” … Cynics take pleasure in dashing others’ hopes to medicate their own misery, as misery does love company. But Plato’s wise man takes pleasure in helping others exit the Cave of Shadows to find sunny hope … To make the world better you don’t have to feel like making it better. Just do it better. You’ll get it back a hundredfold … Helping others find their way you possess a wealth far surpassing the shifting sands of self-esteem. You’ll possess unshakable self-respect …

Last week I came across this article on the Jewish Talmud by Dennis Prager. He echoes my grandfather’s wisdom and raises the decibel level:

The Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act.

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

The awful Sacrifice

I happened on this 2011 journal entry from my retreat with the Trappist monks in Iowa, reflecting stream-of-consciousness on a four-hour stretch spanning the monks’ Vigil of prayer at 3:30 a.m. up to the beginning of 7:00 a.m. Mass.

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Notes from my silent retreat: 3:15 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.
June 3rd

The day began at 3:15 a.m. Startled by the cell phone zzz; zzz; zzz.
Downstairs for a shot of coffee, off to church.
I adore night vigils.
Silhouetted monks processing and recessing in endless rhythms. Watchmen. For us.
The Divine Office grinding my homegrown kernels of wheat into leavened Bread for the Sacrifice.
Such raw & gritty psalms we pray in the night.
Lamenting, groaning, wailing, pain, fury, rejection, pleading, longing.
“I cry aloud to you, O only hope of Israel. There is none to rescue me, save you. Remember your promises, O Lord. Do not cast me away. Let me hear rejoicing. Have you forgotten us?”
And those dissonant harmonies. Intended? Regardless, they trouble the steady waters of recto tono. A frayed unity saved for this pitch black night. Makes the psalms stick to my bones, long for resolve.
“How long?”
A reading from the Book of Wisdom: Folly or wisdom, you choose.
The lights extinguished, sight vanished, horizons collapse.
30 minutes of dead silence. I can hear my breathing.
My mind playing with Wisdom.
Memories of life outside flash – no, crash – in. A mix of painful, joyful, vivid, faint.
I turn them all up, then hand them over.
“Cast your cares on Him for He cares for you.”
Silence clamors to become a thirsty vessel, unspoken consent.
Then more psalms.
A reading from St. Gregory Palamas – who knew? – on virtue.
“Let us bless the Lord.”
Two hours ‘till Mass. I step outside beneath the milky pre-dawn dome, a thousand synchronic, symphonic crickets chirping.
I gather my life up for the coming Sacrifice.  “O Mystery deep, unfathomable, without beginning,” as the Armenian liturgy begins. I can feel Its approach, feel tremors within.
A procession enters my silence — of faces, requests, struggles, fears, smiles come to mind. Their needs arise: “Her son-in-law, for strength. He’s in despair, for hope. They’re getting married, for fidelity. She’s afraid, for peace. That he’ll know what to do next, for guidance.”
“Yes, I’ll pray for you.”
I must. I am. Fitfully, buoyed by small acts of love.
Hush, I can hear a pin drop. I pick it up for those faces, with love.
Outside! Life awakens as dawn breaks: cardinals, chipping sparrows, chickadees, towhees, catbirds, barn swallows, a wood thrush. Sonorous meadows seem to me a psalmody, saying, “Bless the Lord!”
The birds’ wax in unwavering joy, greeting dawn as if for the first time. The crickets wane, fade away as they complete their night watch.
These all I gather in my soul for the awful Sacrifice.
All under my dominion. My God. Such gravity.
I, anointed priest of nature and grace, boundary between creations (old, new), lift all things back to the High God. (Why is He already so Low to earth?)
I join the liturgy of the Orient — “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”
Sun paints the skies, splashing the world bright, its warm rays sifting through a tangle of Slash Pine needles.
I can feel a cool breeze, caressing my face from the East, I think. Gentle as a mother.
The monastic bells toll, calling laborers to prayer. To up-offer.
Called into procession out from our scattered lives, gathered into the One.
The Sacrifice begins. I brought my Bread.
The Dawn from on High has broken upon us.
I can see it through the stained glass.

Raids on the Unspeakable

Sedona, AZ

As I was preparing my talks for an upcoming retreat I am presenting, I was overcome — nay, ambushed — by the beauty of an insight. As I was thinking on the well-worn Psalm 139:14 —

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

— I recalled a video put out by Harvard a few years ago that illustrated, with CGI animation, the staggering complexity of all that goes on all the time in one human cell. Yes, just one. Then I remembered my college biology teacher, with his thick German accent, saying, “There is more intelligence, efficiency and complexity in each cell of your body than you could ever imagine, so remember whenever you feel you aren’t too smart, your body already is smarter than you will ever be.”

I sank into my favorite mode of prayer, praise. Praise is the most useless, pointless form of praying as its only goal is to lavish compliments on God for His absurdly beautiful Face, outrageously creative creation and madly excessive redemption. True praise is oriented wholly Godward, for God’s sake, unconcerned with personal returns on my laudatory investment.

I was once hiking many years ago with a friend in Sedona, AZ and he just screamed out into the painted desert, choked up with tearful emotion over the beauty, “Outrageous, God!” Or maybe, “Outrageous God!” Certainly one of the most eloquent acts of praise I’ve ever heard and seen.

To use Thomas Merton’s language, praise is “raids on the Unspeakable.”

When I watched the Harvard video, I saw this comment by Noah Stephens-Davidowitz. So I will just end with that and embed the video. And I won’t be surprised if I hear in the distance a faint echo of your voice, screaming praise.

The human body is unquestionably the most complicated machine that any person has ever encountered, and it’s likely to hold that title. Each of the about 6.8 billion people on Earth is composed of a unique set of roughly 100 trillion cells (Whenever you hear the word trillion, be amazed) of a huge variety of types. Each of these cells is way more complicated and elegant than your high school bio textbook said. The organelles in your cell exist in this terrifyingly confusing and surreal world in which incredibly weird objects of a huge variety of scales interact according to the bizarre laws of organic chemistry, three-dimensional geometry, and quantum mechanics.