“Only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6)


Fr. Tom Hopko:

…So then, you have what I consider personally to be the most terrifying paragraph in the New Testament. These are the most scary and terrifying verses in the New Testament. This is what Jesus says, and this is how the Sermon ends. He says:

Not everyone 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 come, and they will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name? Did we not do many mighty works in your name?”

Three times, it says, “In your name.” And within the name, one is “prophecy,” which means to teach the truth of God. One is “casting out demons,” which means to heal the diseases and madness of the world. And the other is “mighty acts,” or miracles. And just for fun, let’s add, “Did we not serve the Divine Liturgy in your name? Didn’t we go to church in your name? Didn’t we organize the conference in your name? Didn’t we go to Guatemala in your name?”

Jesus continues, “And then I will declare to them, I never knew you. Depart from me you evildoers.” Could you imagine that? You say to the Lord, “I prophesied in your name. I did miracles in your name. I did healings in your name. I did all these things in your name my whole life. I walked around in a dress, with a cross on it, in your name.” And He says, “Depart from me you evildoer. I did not know you.”

What does that mean? What it means is that you can do all these things and even do them in the name of Christ, but you did not do them according to the law of God, which is love and mercy and forgiveness without vanity or conceit.

Now He adds, “…only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven,” and here, all the Holy Fathers will unanimously say that ascetical actions in themselves are not necessarily the will of God in Heaven. Miracles and prophecy and teaching and casting out demons are not necessarily the will of God in Heaven. Don’t ever think just because someone works signs and wonders means they’re the real deal. The real deal miracle worker is only the one who loves enemies, is humble and doesn’t feed on attention. Miracles and mystical flights and ascetical feats can cover up brilliantly the fact that we’re totally full of ourselves. As Fr. Schmemann liked to say, all too often mysticism becomes nothing but mist, I, and schism.

Jesus is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount: loving, forgiving, being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for justice, being merciful and pure in heart, peacemaking, being persecuted for doing right and not for being arrogant; and doing all I do, as much as possible, hidden in secret — that is the will of God in Heaven. And that alone saves a person.

So the Holy Fathers say that no one was ever saved for not eating meat. The devils never eat. No one was ever saved for sleeping on the ground or giving up sleep. The demons never sleep. And no one was ever saved by doing a miracle or giving a talk. You’re only saved when you do the will of God, which is to love with the love with which God has loved us in Christ. St. Thérèse, a Roman Catholic saint, said it perfectly: “It is only love that makes us acceptable to God.” So it’s love, and it’s also humility. Real humility. Humility ready to confess our total failure to love this way. Only then we can receive the mercy of God. So we’re saved by love and by humility. Real humility that’s brutally honest before God, before others and ourselves. God’s mercy can only teach us to love if we’re humble, able to be absolutely honest like the Publican in the synagogue: “Have mercy on me a sinner!”

Dostoevsky really got this kind of humilty and mercy. In Crime and Punishment, he puts these words in the mouth of the drunk, Marmaladov, whose daughter, Sonya, becomes a prostitute to feed his family that’s starving because he’s a drunk. The father’s talking about the eternal fate of his messed up family. He’s willing to see things as they really are. No self-delusion here. I’ll read it to you so you can feel its full power.

God will come in that day and He will ask: “Where is the daughter who gave herself for her angry, consumptive stepmother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?” And He will say, “Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once. Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee, for thou hast loved much.” And He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive, I know it… I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say, “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And we shall come forth without shame and shall stand before Him, and He will say unto us, “Ye are swine made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!” And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, “O Lord, why dost thou receive these men?” And He will say, “This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him, and we shall weep, and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!




People don’t live in New Orleans because it is easy. They live here because they are incapable of living anywhere else in the just same way. — Ian McNulty

One of the most extraordinary things I have discovered about New Orleans (and here I include the surrounding region of SE Louisiana) is its firm hold on the people who call it home. In general, there is a profound devotion and love among residents for this city. While I know that love for your city or town is not unusual, there is something here about people’s love and devotion that I find singularly unique in my (admittedly) limited experience. How can I say it? Maybe I can say that people have very deep roots here, and that they really identify with New Orleans’ colorful culture in a way I am not accustomed. One lifelong resident said to me that living in New Orleans is like having an addiction. But, he added, unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, you feel freest and most yourself when you finally succumb to its allure. It’s all been a beautiful thing to experience for us, and my wife and I feel very committed to retiring here. Unless they exile me for my Yankee leanings.

But Katrina really is the word I would use to most forcefully describe the uniqueness of my experience of the Big Easy. There’s hardly a day that’s passed these three years my family and I have lived here when I don’t hear the word “Katrina” spoken by someone. Seriously. To be a New Orleanean, I have discovered, is to be forever marked by Katrina. Like 9/11 for New Yorkers. But to be a New Orleanean is also to be fiercely committed to keeping this city alive, with its rich cultural heritage, tight network of families and very old faith. When we first moved here people in our neighborhood were anxious to convince us that the New Orleans projected by the media to the world after Katrina was not their New Orleans. Their New Orleans was about people helping people, about the will to survive and go on, about hard work and a passion to rebuild. The Papal Nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò said it well in his message to New Orleans sent earlier this month: “While Hurricane Katrina took away your homes, churches, public buildings, and even the lives of your loved ones, she did not take away your determination to rebuild. Such perseverance is an expression of your faith in God.”

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow on the Gulf Coast, I asked a friend, colleague and native New Orleanean, Mrs. Susie Veters, to share her own experience of living through those days. She, her husband and family represent for my wife and I what we love most about New Orleans: family, faith, joy and friendship. I am grateful she said yes to my request…


Our Lakeview home one week after Katrina

I was recently asked to write a reflection on how Katrina changed my world.  Before I jump into that, I need to preface my remarks with a few thoughts about the events.  Before Katrina, my husband and I were never “evacuators.”  We “hunkered down” (a favorite New Orleanian phrase), we bought supplies, we filled our bath tubs with water (in case the City water supplies failed), we bought gas for our generator, and more importantly called around to see who else was silly enough to stay for the hurricane so that we could decide who would have the hurricane party when the weather died down.  What was the worst thing that could happen – loss of electricity and a couple of days of no school and work?!   Well, luckily we knew better than to stay for Katrina.  We watched Katrina from a friend’s deer camp in Alabama.  We watched as reports of flooding rolled in, as thousands of our citizens remained trapped on roof tops and interstate overpasses and, literally, as our city burned.  It was an out of body experience that one cannot really describe.  When we finally heard that our neighborhood was one of the hardest hit, I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me.  I was sure my world as I knew it was over.  We packed our car with the little clothes we brought and headed to Houston to find a new home and a school for our children.  We felt like the Beverly Hillbillies (a reference that only us baby boomers will get!)  Without a doubt the thing I mourned most during the days, weeks and months that followed was not my possessions, but the thought that the awesome parish community we lived in, St. Dominic’s, was lost.  Luckily that was not the case.  We came back.  We rebuilt our house. We did what we could to get our parish up and running.  I came to realize that the quality of life is not measured by the stuff we possess but by the relationships that give us life.  I also learned that a community of faith is the rock upon which everything else is built.  Once St. Dominic was up and running I believed that things would be ok.   I cannot describe the joy the first time our parish came together to celebrate Mass.  It was at that moment that I knew that what we lost was not the issue; instead it was what we still had that mattered most. And so how did Katrina change my world? It made me come to a much deeper appreciation of my faith, my family, and my friends.  It was a 3D experience of how much we rely on each other.  It made me appreciate the kindness of strangers and enkindled in me a need to give back in a way I had not previously experienced.  I don’t regret Katrina for one moment.  She gave us much more than she took!

Beginners, all of us


I’d like to share a story I heard today from a visiting priest, who was in town giving an evening of reflection at the seminary. We had a chance to sit and visit for about 15 minutes.

He’s in his 70’s, and he said he gives a lot of retreats to nuns, “most of them older than me.” Ha! Anyway, he said that one time when he was giving a retreat at a convent, he met a nun who was in her 90’s. She enthusiastically thanked him for the retreat.  She was a very joyful woman. He said to her, “Sister, did you really find the retreat helpful?” She said, “Yes, Father, I did.” He then said to her, “At this point in your life, how would you describe your spiritual state?” She said, “Father, I’m just beginning.”

I joked that her astonishing admission was a good reason for me to despair. But, as he said to me, that reaction misses the mark of what the spiritual life is really all about. I wrote thoughts on this in my journal during lunch…

+ + + +

At the heart of a Christian and Jew’s spiritual life is the conviction that, in the final analysis, I am not in control. God is. The spiritual life is primarily an expression of the work of grace, is a work of divine initiative and of our co-operating with God. God operates, I co-. God speaks, I echo. God labors, I collaborate. The Virgin Mary’s “let it be done to me” is the primal posture of the saint. Abandonment, in trust, to divine providence is the fundamental Christian strategy for “getting control of one’s life.” Think of it, our model prayer — the Our Father — is simply a series of seven free consents to God’s action: (1) sanctify your name; (2) let your kingdom come; (3) let your will be done; (4) give us; (5) forgive us; (6) lead us; (7) deliver us. Like Abraham leading his only son up the mountain, we realize that, in the end, nothing in heaven or on earth is, in any absolute sense, mine. Everything is gift given and offering returned. We are stewards. God sustains me in existence at every nanosecond, so not even my existence is my possession. Suicide is theft. Existence is a gift I receive and, as with all gifts given by God, it is given in service to my vocation/mission in life to glorify God’s Name and work for the salvation of all (which is really saying the same thing as God’s glory is “man fully alive”).

Those who advance in the spiritual life begin to realize quickly that, because of this truth of “all is gift,” every day is a fresh beginning, a new genesis, a day unlike all previous days and a day never to repeated again. Every “today” is an epiphany of God’s freedom to give and act, and an opportunity for our free response, to receive and co-act. In this theological sense, every moment of existence is an experience of radical novelty. Though it is of course true that there are evident and discernible patterns that mark God’s manner of dealing with us (God’s not chaotic), God is, as Pope Francis said so well, a “God of surprises.” And faith is the only proper and proportionate posture toward a surprising, untamed, un-caged, uncircumscribed God. Faith reminds us that we are always beginners, always learning God anew, always begging paupers, and the faithful are happy (makarios!) for it being this way.

The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote, “To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it.” He was referring to the desire we have in our spiritual lives to seize control of God, to demand control over our spiritual progress, over the oscillations of consolation and desolation, over the speed with which God eradicates our sins. St. John of the Cross, referring to those whom God has purified, through faith, of their impatient need to control God’s work in them, says:

Softened and humbled by spiritual dryness and hardships and by other temptations and trials in which God exercises the soul in the course of this night, individuals become meek toward God and themselves and also toward their neighbor. As a result they no longer become impatiently angry with themselves and their faults or with their neighbor’s; neither are they displeased or disrespectfully querulous with God for not making them perfect quickly.

The purified all know they are beginners, and rejoice in their permanent novitiate.

A seminarian in Omaha this summer shared a phenomenal insight I’ll end with, as it wonderfully reinforces my point.

One of the most important graces I received this summer here is a transformation in my prayer life. Prayer for me prior to this summer was like visiting a zoo. I would visit the Trinity and the saints, and look at them and admire them, maybe even speak to them, but my prayer was safe because they were all locked up. I had no fear that they might disturb my life much, and I felt I had total control over what they did or did not do. But this summer I opened the cages, and they all ran out, and now the Lion has moved into my home. Everything changed. Thanks be to God.

Lord, grant me the grace to say the same. Amen.

Profligate Man

Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. — Annie Dillard

When I read this line in Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought at once of a friend whom I admired greatly during the years I knew him when we lived near each other. There are three things about him that stand, for me, as a constant call to higher things. I aspire to all three of them, even if I seem to mostly salute them from afar (cf Hebrews 11:13).

  1. He lives in the moment, all the time. When I’m with him, I suddenly feel unchained from preoccupations with times beyond the present. Regrets and preoccupations, worries and fantasies seem to vanish when we hang out together, as he is always so present to the here and now, drinking in our friendship, erupting with sudden joys over an unexpected flower, throwing himself into the weary world of a convenience store cashier who seemed (to him) to need a word of encouragement — and leaving her with a smile. His attention to the present seems to me almost naive, impossible, especially as he himself lives a life bound up in a thousand cares. And he’s old enough to know better. Yet…
  2. He is unexpectedly generous. We were walking together once after buying sandwiches, looking for an open park bench to sit on. He saw a homeless man asleep on a bench, went over to him, awakened him and asked him if he was hungry. He was. He gave the drowsy man half of his sandwich and asked if we could sit and have lunch with him. We did. He saw the man was hungry for communion. It was extraordinary. The “homeless man” was actually Stephen, and we believed only half of what he said. But it didn’t matter. My reckless friend had uncovered a hidden communion by breaking the hard crust of indifference. Of my indifference, as he was himself obviously oblivious to indifference. I recognized Him in the breaking of this bread, discovered only in that fleeting moment.
  3. His love for God is disarmingly free. When he speaks of God, there’s no plastic or oppressive piety or Pollyanna approaches to God’s “place” in the world. He weaves his faith into everything, he loves Jesus, but not simply as another “topic” to wax on about. For him God is not this or that, here or there. Faith for him is not so much what is seen, faith is vision itself, how he sees the world. To offer an image my colleague Dr. Chris Baglow taught me, I’d say my friend engages God not as one would the Sun, seeking to locate by fixed coordinates a blinding orb somewhere high in the skies. Rather, for him God is the unseen and generous light that is known in the event of its selfless act of transforming darkness, bringing the world “to light” for the sighted, making all things intelligible, revealing all things beautiful, dispelling for the willing all nights, calling forth the dawn everywhere and always and in all things.

How has such a man been fashioned? God alone knows. But once when we were together, I asked him, “What gave you your view of things?” He thought for a moment, and then said: “Though I suffered lots in childhood with a chaotic family, I had a baby sister I was forced to care for a lot of the time. She eventually drew me out of myself, but I’ll tell you it must have been grace that took me from resentment to something else. And when you come out of yourself and get into another’s world you find everything looks totally different. The rest of my life just kinda flowed from caring for someone else. I think that the vocation of every baby conceived or born is to yank others out of their self-absorption and comfort. I guess I could say grace gave me my sister so I’d see love’s everything. If you get that, everything just looks different.”

St. Maximus the Confessor, come to my aid to worthily speak of this mystery:

The Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supraessential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things … He longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired…

Behold the Mystery

Today I simply want to share Colleen Nixon’s gorgeous English rendering of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic poem-prayer, Pange lingua gloriosi. She calls it, Behold the Mystery. It’s my favorite of her many musical accomplishments. Enjoy:

With Me


Another “must share” homily from Omaha — I am trying to stretch them out into August to not overwhelm you with too much bright light at once. The priest who homilized is in his 70’s, with the heart of a young man.

The Gospel that day that he preached on was this:

While Jesus was speaking to the crowds,
his mother and his brothers appeared outside,
wishing to speak with him.
Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside,
asking to speak with you.”
But he said in reply to the one who told him,
“Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”
And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father
is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Here are his words, reconstructed from scribbled notes jotted down on a crumpled piece of paper I found on the floor.

+ + + +

Who are you? Who do you think you are? Ponder anew. Jesus tells us today: we are his brothers, sisters, mothers. The Father binds us all as one family if we do His will, which means looking to Jesus, the Son, as our model.

Growing up, my father was not there for me. Now, he was a good man, a hard working man and was always there for us. But he was never with us, with me. He was always distant, somewhere else when we was with us, and he never really spent close time with me as a boy. He was a strong and stoic figure that I feared, admired, but could not say I loved.

I grew up and matured, let go of the hurts and resentments. Forgave him for not being there, for not showing affection or concern for my little world, for not allowing me to have childhood memories playing with my dad. Jesus healed many of the shadows of anger and resentment in me and taught me to love my father and not nurse my own wounds.

As my father got older, he grew sick and I wasn’t sure how long we’d have with him. I just knew that now was the time to share with him my regrets, but without anger or hurt. Just so I could understand why. Why couldn’t he be there with us.

He listened attentively and, after a long pause, told me about his own childhood. He had never, not ever once spoken of his father to us. I knew only that his father died when he was a teenager. He told me that his own father had abused him, beat him, rejected him as his son. “Before [my father died,” he said, “he had already left me an orphan.” I asked my father why he decided to tell me this and not answer my question directly. He said, again after a long pause, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I never knew what it was like to be a son. To have a father. So I don’t know how to treat you as a son.”

It was a sacred moment.

Years later I asked myself while on a retreat, “Then how have I learned how to be a father as a priest?” It was clear at once to me as the exchange of Jesus and Phillip immediately leapt into my mind [14:8-10]:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?”

Jesus, so intimately close to the Father, had shown me the Father and invited me into His own Sonship, to experience what it means to be loved by the Father, what it means to be a beloved son. There in the Heart of Jesus I had learned how to be a father, but Jesus did it so humbly I hadn’t even noticed He was doing it. I thought, I don’t have to imagine what the invisible, seemingly distant Father is like! The Son, who became human to make divinity “closer to me than I am to myself,” bears within Him the Father [John 14:11]; and He’s the perfect Image of the Father, His Word [John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:1ff]. Looking at Jesus’ human face, into His eyes of love and compassion, is looking into a mirror of the Father’s invisible face, into His compassionate eyes. Jesus also says, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” [Matthew 11:27].

I asked Jesus again and again as I looked at the crucifix: “Show me the Father.” I heard in my heart these words describing the prodigal father: “…while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” ([Luke 15:20].

We say Jesus is God-with-us, but Jesus also opens us to the vision of the Father-with-us. Playing. Rejoicing. Working. Running with unspeakable joy toward us.

T.S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I had been on a quest to recover the love I had never had, but yearned for, not knowing how to recover it. And when I came to Jesus, who stretched His arm out to me and invited me into His family, I found myself back to by own beginning; to the moment when God, in the womb of my mother, had breathed the breath of life in me and loved me into existence. Jesus led me, and I arrived where I started, and I came to know the place for the first time. New wonder. New joy. New gratitude. New life.

And the Spirit, who had been leading my exploration all along, murmuring indiscernible groans within, finally became fully articulate and cried out in me: “Abba! Father!”

I’m home.



My homily notes

God alone for love alone


I wrote this poem of sorts to a contemplative nun I met a number of years ago. She prayed often for me and for my family, and I wanted to thank her, as a layman, for the radical gift of her vowed consecration to Christ. It’s very “Neal” in its language, but if you can get beyond that maybe you can catch at least some sense of the beauty of that state of life I tried to capture. Below the poem is the image I used to pray with before I wrote. It’s of St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, painted in the mid-15th century.

Ancilla Domini (Handmaid of the Lord)

God alone, for us alone you live

there, ‘neath those stone vaults

bent, veiled, heart aloft

celestial curtains rip, fall away,

stripped down by love’s pine.

God-revealed for us, to us, in us

by and through your fiery prayer

that burns night and day

up-toward your Bridegroom:

Come! Abide! Remain!

In your gathered hours

outpouring grace, sacred space

where Wisdom at last plays free,

His children all-guileless.

You never do violence, save by love

as your peaceful wills are ever-warring

twixt falling night and rising Day,

conquering death by means of serenest love.

From nuptial chambers — yours! —

leaks divine Fire, O wedded Bride,

out into our fields, far and wide

from whence we draw warmth and light

in the long dark night’s bitter chill.

My sister, for us

stand so near

the Master’s side-torn Flood,

drink deep and

share with us, parched in the midday heat,

the Bridegroom’s Vintage best:

God-crushed, pressed, distilled into

inebriating Blood, spiced Wine

of the ever-blessing, blood-red Vine.

You, my sister, called near

to gather from the Wellspring’s shore

for our salvation you implore:

For us you die —

we who have been called

out into the tilling field

to trade in the market,

to love in the home,

to sweat in the sun

that we might lift earth and sky

worthily, rightly,

daily with, through and in you

unto God Most High.

Deo gratias et gratias tibi.