“It takes lot of butterflies to make a world full of flowers” ― Trina Paulus

[re-post from 2015]

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” ― Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Not long ago, at his request, I shared with the priest I go to Confession to regularly the story of how I came to meet my wife. This priest is really exceptional for me, as he challenges me very hard, and helps me search my heart to see more clearly what drives me to self-destructive behavior, i.e. sin. As I shared various important moments in our relationship, he kept taking me back further and further, all the way back to the time before we met. It was a remarkable, and emotional, journey to take with him.

We ended up all the way back in October of 1984, to the origin of my decision to leave Massachusetts and go to Florida State University, where I would eventually meet my future wife, Patti Masters. He said, “Why Florida State?” I told him that decision originated in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV in Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. At the time, I was myopic in my resolve to be everything Jim Cantore became — a TV weatherman.

I went to “spend a day” with Bruce and was starstruck. He was so generous with his time and wisdom, even indulging my obsession with mesoscale convective complexes by answering my many questions. At the end of my day of shadowing, after he had finished the 6 PM newscast, he said, “Well, so the million dollar question is where to go to college for this career. Florida State and UCLA. But I consider FSU’s Meteorology department, with Jim O’Brien there, to be top notch.” And so it was, sunny Florida.

In Florida I would discover myself, my faith, my passion for learning, my wife, my career path.

My Confessor then said to me:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had shaped by that one comment? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to conversion to the faith, meeting your wife, having your children, establishing friendships, a career in the church — endless effects!

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It’s a physics theory that says, for example, the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is impacted by something as minuscule as the flapping wing of a butterfly months earlier in Panama. Never underestimate the effects your least significant acts of fidelity can have on the future world. For your every new movement, the future is filled with things that never had to be this way.

Remember, just because you don’t see the effects, you’re often tempted to despair and say: “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t really matter.” But it all does matter. We tend to be so myopic and narrow in our judgment on the value of everything we do. We massively undervalue what God can do with our little nothings entrusted to Him.

Think of life as ecosystem. The interdependence of everything we are about is so staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate that just one decision, one smile, one quiet “whoosh” of a sacrifice — or one harsh word — can change the course of history. For better or for ill. Your secret interior life radiates out into the whole cosmos. Even your most secret thoughts make it easier, or more difficult, for those around you to follow Christ.

Begin each day with a prayer for the Spirit to guide your thoughts, words, actions, that they will set in motion the uncountable goods He wills. Then at the end of every day entrust all to His mercy. Ask Him to forgive failures and bless successes, and untangle knots you have tied up. God loves to make faults “happy.” We need to beg Him to do that, daily.

On Judgment Day, one of the things we will see, through God’s eyes, is the astonishingly complex web of influence we were part of. We will be allowed to see our role in that web. Imagine seeing that! Thrilling, terrifying. Kyrie eleison.

I am convinced Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” will come to us from people we’ve never met, who were not fed by us directly but by the others we impacted, who in turn fed them. Generations later in the future. Think of that next time you feel your work is insignificant. Given to grace, its impact is without borders.

When God chose Abram and Sarai, He didn’t say, “Look at the ground in front of you and think of today and your next step.” He said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count! ‘Countless’ is the size of impact you will have on all of history!” They gave their Yes and, holy cow, look at what’s happened! God said, “Go!”, they went, and 1800 years later, God becomes flesh. And 3800 years later, you. Me. Patti. Your children.

God’s plan is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.

Additionally amazing is that a friend, just last week, said to me, “Tom, what you are doing now for your children will fulfill its purpose in your great great grandchildren.”

May we learn to be silent

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“There is so much noise in the world! May we learn to be silent in our hearts and before God.” — Pope Francis

I met a woman who has been a therapist for nearly 40 years, and is very committed to her faith. About 15 years ago, she confided to me something she said she believes was inspired — whenever she sits with a new client, she immediately writes them a “prescription” before their first session even begins. It reads, “30 minutes every day in undistracted silence.”  After she hands it to them, she explains that during that time they are to keep a journal of all that comes up during those 30 minutes. And if they find initially that 30 minutes is too difficult to handle, she tells them to start with 5 minutes and then work to build up, little by little, toward the magic 30 minutes.

She said she decided to do this when she noticed, with the advent of the Internet, the increasing difficulty people were having engaging in any serious form of self-reflection. She said, “It had become a very rare thing for people to actually set aside all distractions and simply sit in quiet and allow their inner world to surface.” She continued, “Facing yourself and life can be scary, and the temptation to be compulsively active and distracted is enormous. It’s toxic to mental health. But the insights gained from those daily quiet times can be amazing. And silence, like sleep, allows the mind opportunity to process, to sort information, to heal. Those journal entries give us the best and most productive material for making progress in counseling.” She added, “It seems revolutionary now, since the coming of the iPhone had made it all a thousand times worse.”

I thought of this as I began to read Robert Cardinal Sarah’s incisive book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. He says,

When we retreat from the noise of the world in silence, we gain a new perspective on the noise of the world. To retreat into silence is to come to know ourselves, to know our dignity … If we give ourselves to ephemeral and insignificant things, we will understand ourselves as ephemeral and insignificant. If we give ourselves to beautiful and eternal things, we will understand ourselves as beautiful and eternal.

That therapist shared with me one other “silence strategy” she employs for couples. “When married couples find themselves unable to communicate constructively during a session, I will ask them to just sit there in quiet and look at each other. For five minutes. And then we resume. Very frequently, it makes all the difference. Something about simply looking at someone, someone you really do love, despite your differences, and just allowing them to be there in front of you — something about that makes them both more vulnerable, more willing to let down their guard.”

Sic transit gloria mundi

Toscanini once recorded a piece sixty five times. You know what he said when he finished? “It could be better.” Think about it. ― Terrence Malick

A simple truism that has deeply impacted my experience of life: Nothing, no work is complete, finished, permanent in this life. All things have ragged, torn edges. They fade, get lost, soil, break, fail, wear out, decay, die.

Yet, this does not mean we can therefore diminish, demean or despair of the deep meaning and inestimable value of this passing world — the first creation. This world, in its total state of incompletion, is an unfinished symphony, standing like a gaping, aching, yearning epiclesis crying out in the Spirit to the Risen Christ, “Come!” (Rev. 22:17; cf Rom. 8:18-25).

Sic transit gloria mundi, “Thus passes the glory of the world,” is a Spirit-carved, plaintive invocation offered up by us to Jesus to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5); to bring all of creation to completion by “gathering up” (ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι) all things in His dead and risen Body (Eph. 1:10).

Yes, the world’s glory passes, but it passes over as a Passover sacrifice, and we who are Jesus’ priestly Body co-transact that passing over. Lumen Gentium 34:

For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

This vantage turns every moment’s experience of “the incomplete” into an omnipotent prayer of consecration, placing our procession of passing glories into the heart of the final consecratory word of Jesus from the Cross — Tetelestai, “It is finished” (John 19:30). In His death of love all our limits die, and rise. Omnia vincit amor.

Gaudium et spes 39:

Having completed the work God called them to do in this world, they will find rest. Moreover, their works will accompany them, and they will find once more, in the land of the living, all the good fruits of their nature and effort—but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed.

If I had to define Childhood

[Re-post from 2017. After today I will pause on posting until maybe Sunday as I have so many talks to write and give this week]

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matt. 18:3

After watching some home videos, all six of us sat around in a circle on the floor in the family room, late on a Saturday night, remembering life when the children were little. We laughed at the memories around the videos, and even remembered some stories we had long forgotten.

It. Was. Awesome.

One of our children said, “It makes me sad to think back, though. Life was so simple then, the world was so magical, enchanted. You know? Especially before social media. Everything seemed possible then. Then you get older and you see it’s not quite so simple. The real world doesn’t seem to get that so well. It’s just so cynical. I hate that.”

Later, after everyone had gone to bed, a had a good cry. I am just so pathetic. I wrote in my journal:

I remember when that old man approached me after I had given my first lecture on ‘wonder as a prerequisite to the act of faith.’ The man’s face was riven with furrows that seemed to have been cut by years of tears. And he had tears in his eyes as he spoke to me: “Life beat wonder out of me long ago, son. Thank you for restoring hope in me tonight that I could regain it. To have a second childhood, be born again, as you put it.”

If I had to define Childhood as a sacrament of the Kingdom, I might say: (1) The stage of life when the world teems with divine glory, guarded by innocence, brimming over with joy, play, wonder, awe, laughter, life lived in the moment beneath the eyes of a carefree Father. (2) The state of mind kindled by an imagination freshly minted in eternity, free to roam through the expansive meadows of possibility that awaken just over the brow of every horizon. (3) The state of immunity from cynicism. (4) The capacity to naturally see (and receive) all as brand new, as crisply fresh, as sheer gift, shot through with surges of spontaneous gratitude that inspire generosity and an embrace of what is as the only springboard into a hoped-for future of what can be.

I am certain — I felt a breeze from the East, enveloping us as we sat together on the floor; a zephyr descending (before its time) from the coming Kingdom, where

the wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:6-9

Ministers on Mission

Running up the stairs on 9/11

[Re-posted every year since 2015]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I always tell our seminarians that it’s really a good thing when they experience opposition and conflict in their leadership work. It keeps them humble and grounded and cognizant of the fact that it’s not all about them. It’s about the mission of Jesus. The Beatitudes are clear: if you’re keeping to Jesus’ mission, and people hate the mission, you’re going to feel the heat. You can’t change the mission to make sure it works for you. You work for it. And the mission of Jesus is justice and mercy that supports the fallen, heals the broken, confronts lies and sins. It should make you uncomfortable, knock the chip off your shoulder, end the pity party, cancel the ego fest.

I also tell our seminarians, the same spirit that inspired the firefighters to run up the stairs in the burning towers on 9/11 should inspire you to get up again every day to be faithful. For others. To give your life. In the New Testament good leaders, Beatitude-driven leaders rejoice in hardship only because they want the mission to succeed more than anything else. They’re happy to pay a price, to decrease to make others — Jesus — increase.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that.

Loving the expanse between them

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[re-post from 2013]

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

I said to my wife the other day how grateful I am that she knows when I need to be alone, or respects when I am not ready to speak about or deal with something. And vice versa. We then discussed the artful balance in marriage between togetherness and, for lack of a better word, ‘otherness.’ That marriage is unity, not uniformity — is the intertwining of identities to mutual gain, and not the fusion of identities to mutual loss. Love augments good in the other, and it does not diminish or steal from a person’s uniqueness.

The real power of marriage as a path to holiness, for me, is that balance — especially when it involves children — which is truly the ascetic art of love. Two freedoms, two personalities freighted with so much baggage, so many other people and so much history, come together to enter into a common quest of loving a new world into being. The family. It’s a gigantic adventure, soaring and humble, fraught with thrill and danger, haunted by the impending uncertainties of life lived trustingly beneath the wings of Providence.

Once when I was in Omaha, praying in front of the icon of Christ the Teacher, I saw in His eyes that our marriage was an entry into the the inner mystery of His divine-human love, especially His agonizing love in Gethsemane. There His two freedoms — human and divine — struggled mightily, sweat drops of blood beneath the looming shadow of the Cross in order to forge a new creation, founded on the costly unity born of obedient love offered on High as a living sacrifice.

Since we met in 1988, thousands of times our wills have cut cross-grain, sometimes very painfully, when we have found ourselves at odds and had to find a way forward together to achieve a new unity of mind and heart. Now it is so clear to us that all of these cross-cuts have been grace drenched opportunities to enter more deeply into Christ, into the mystery of His divine love that ceaseless labors to create unity with our human love; though only at great cost to both God and Man.

Which is why our marital practice of always stopping to pray when we find ourselves facing a painful disagreement has been life and marriage-saving. Praying breaks the impasse and brings our struggle immediately into Jesus, with confidence that He has already been victorious in that combat of love. His struggle is ours, and ours His.

Deo gratias.

Yet amid all of the various areas of unity we have achieved, our differences abound and remain. Some will hopefully one day be overcome, while others will never be overcome (nor should some of them ever be). Belles différences! All of them, though, as they create tensions, give us fresh opportunity daily to choose love again, to opt for a restless oneness that opens up new and far more interesting spaces with fresh possibilities to create.

But through it all — and this is the greatest grace of all to me — we know one lives for the other, exists for the other, is for the other. My wife is all at once a garden of challenge and of rest, a garden guarded by impregnable trust. Our marriage is fueled by a sacramental fire that burns deep in me for her, and deep in her for me — a fire of éros that drives me out of myself to live in her as lover; a fire of philía that drives me out of myself to walk beside her as friend; a fire of agápe that drives me out of myself to die for her as sacrifice.

This fire is our only hope. Amen.

Mary Mother of the Church

Pope Francis instituted a new liturgical Memorial feast, celebrated on the Monday after Pentecost, in honor of Mary “Mother of the Church.” The purpose of this new feast? Robert Cardinal Sarah:

This celebration will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed, the Virgin who makes her offering to God.

This feast will help us discover in Mary the sweetest fruit of the Paschal Mystery, the Woman who became all-Fire because she was all-Yes to God. From the Annunciation to the Cross to Pentecost, she is the perfect realization of free human cooperation in God’s saving plan made known in Christ. Her immaculate reception of the Pentecostal detonation of the new creation in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13-15) permitted the radiant Light, blazing out of the empty tomb of the risen Jesus, uninhibited access into the heart of the world.

At Pentecost the same Spirit who first overshadowed Mary to enflesh God, now came to complete the Incarnation by inviting all of humanity to become the Body of Christ and allow Christ to come to “full stature” (Eph. 4:13). You might say that the whole of creation was, in nuce, wholly re-created by God in, with and through Mary’s human and maternal flesh, from whom God took His own flesh. In Mary, from her Immaculate Conception to her glorious Assumption, the whole Body of Christ was mystically present in its perfection.

And then there’s this. Mary is a laywoman made perfect in grace. She who is “tainted nature’s solitary boast,” she who is “more honorable that the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim,” stands among the lay faithful, giving magnified voice to their thanksgiving, praise to the God who lifts up the lowly.

As New Eve, in consecrating the whole world to God by co-offering herself with her Son’s priestly and eucharistic sacrifice, Mary becomes the supreme icon of the lay vocation in the world. As a wife and mother at home with her husband and child in Nazareth; as a refugee in flight into Egypt; as guest celebrating at the wedding feast at Cana; as a widow standing at the foot of Golgotha along a public street outside the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem; as a woman at prayer in an upstairs apartment in Jerusalem on the feast Pentecost — Mary casts out into the world, far and wide, the graced seeds of the Kingdom.

It’s why we consecrate ourselves, nations and the world to her heart. Her heart is consecrated earth. Indeed, it is through the human heart that God empties out His Spirit to renew the face of the earth and make it again into His Garden (John 19:30-42). Consecrating ourselves to her is like jumping on an already racing meteor hurling headlong toward the Kingdom of God.

Christ the New Adam makes “all things new” precisely by joining Mary, the New Eve, to Him, so together they — in a world of violence, tyranny, hate, apathy — can walk the via dolorosa and bring all things — even death itself — under the unconquerable dominion of self-wasting, life-giving, sacrificial love.