“Put away…all slander.” – Ephesians 4:25

“I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Taken from bp.blogspot.com

I love reading St. Maximus the Confessor in the Eastern spiritual anthology, the Philokalia. Such rich and challenging material. Here’s one line that caught my eye today:

When the demons see us learning the way of detachment, so as not to hate men and fall away from love, they then incite slanders against us, hoping that, unable to bear the hurt, we will come to hate those who slander us … To the extent that you pray from your soul for the one who spreads slander about you, God will reveal the truth to those who were told the slander.

This quote made me think of a close cousin of slander — detraction, which we more commonly refer to as gossip. The Catechism describes detraction as “without an objectively valid reason, disclosing another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.”

This brought to mind two pieces of advice my spiritual director gave me almost 20 years ago. There was a situation that had caused me a lot of pain, and I found myself indiscriminately sharing very negative information about a certain person for no other reason than to let off steam, find company for my misery and make myself feel better by making them look worse. After very honestly confessing this sin, my director said,

Remember what Jesus said, “There’s nothing said in hiding now that won’t be revealed, nothing hush-hush that won’t one day be shouted from rooftops” [cf Luke 12:2-3]. So always speak with that in mind. One day everyone will know everything you say, so live in the light all the time.

During his post-confession counsel, he calmly added this little detail, “For every minute of gossip, I want you to offer ten minutes of prayer for those you speak ill of.” Next time he asked me what effect his penance had had on me. I said, “I’ve learned to pray more for forgiveness, I’m better at holding my tongue and I keep my gossip very brief.”

Progress is progress.

If Pope Francis had been Pope back then, my director would probably have quoted him to me:

The sickness of chatter, grumbling and gossip: this is a serious illness that begins simply, often just in the form of having a chat, and takes people over, turning them into sowers of discord, like Satan, and in many cases cold-blooded murderers of the reputations of their colleagues and brethren. It is the sickness of the cowardly who, not having the courage to speak directly to the people involved, instead speak behind their backs.

Tomorrow’s Lent. It all begins…

On Another’s Sorrow

“The Ancient of Days,” by William Blake, c. 1820, taken from burbanklodge.com

On January 30th, two days after the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Michael Dodds, O.P. gave a lecture at the seminary on the question of God’s impassibility, i.e. whether or not one can say properly that God is capable of suffering, and if so, in what sense. If you’d like to hear the lecture, click here. I found it clear and insightful.

But what I wanted to highlight here today were the literary references he used to open and close his lecture. The first was a poem by William Blake called, On Another’s Sorrow. I had never heard it, but was taken with its deep intuitions of divine and human compassion. The second was a quote from St. Catherine of Siena in which she passionately puzzled over the tension between God’s dispassionate perfection and his impassioned desire for his creatures. So, today, I will simply share both of these with you.

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear –

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
O no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give His joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

O He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear –

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
O no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give His joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

O He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

+++++++++++++++++++

“O immeasurably tender love! Who would not be set afire with such love? What heart could keep from breaking? You, deep well of charity, it seems you are so madly in love with your creatures that you could not live without us! Yet you are our God, and have no need of us. Your greatness is no greater for our well-being, nor are you harmed by any harm that comes to us, for you are supreme eternal Goodness. What could move you to such mercy? Neither duty nor any need you have of us –but only love! Just as love constrained you to draw us from yourself, so the same love constrained you to redeem us when we were lost. You indeed showed that you loved us before we existed when you willed to draw us from yourself solely through love, but you showed greater love towards us when you gave yourself, enclosing yourself in our humanity. And what more could you give than yourself? Because of this you could truly say ‘what should I have done or what could I have done that I have not done?’”

Praying bones

2011 re-post.

Taken from virtualmuseum.ca

I was speaking with a Trappist monk about prayer while I was on retreat back in the early 1990s. He’d been a monk for nearly 60 years. He told me what his view of prayer was now, compared to when he first entered. How often does one hear such a vantage? I tried later to collect all the ideas and, of course, blended them with my own. That, by the way, is how I do lectio divina — I take God’s Word, or another’s words about God, and allow them to infiltrate my own. The majority of my posts flow from this.

When I first entered monastic life, prayer was like an amusement park, filled with so many wonderful and thrilling new rides and moments of excitement. As the years wore on, it matured into a daily act of the will, an expression of fidelity. Though the original thrill still came now and again, the maturing of love was calling me to the hard work of daily perseverance through the ebbs and flows. Love shows itself in tedium more than in flashy moments of mystical prowess. The flashy gets you ready for the tedium. But it’s usually at the tedium stage, when the real work begins, that people give up on prayer…Between oscillations of health and sickness, sweetness and bitterness, whirlwinds and doldrums I began to see that God was excavating me to make more room in me for himself. I began to see God was far greater than any of my ideas or feelings. It was for me a new twist on St. Anselm’s Quod maior sit quam cogitari possit, “Greater than which nothing can be conceived.” Prayer went from being like an old and well-worn shoe to being…now it’s gotten into my bones and it can make them shake. As I get older, more frail, I feel my body’s being shaken to its foundations. I’ve long thought of the aches and pains of aging as a kind of dress rehearsal for the day death will rend my body and soul. And I long to see his face and live, but he said to see his face you have to die [Exodus 33:20]. Prayer is surrendering to death and life, letting God make me long for his face. God has led me to a cliff to look down at the sheer drop into his infinity. I see so clearly I’m just a grain of sand on a mountain, an atom in an ocean, so infinitesimally tiny. God, immense, without borders…Now prayer’s less like self indulgence, seeking myself in God. Not cajoling God to think highly of my requests. It’s more like succumbing to God’s steady approach, his nearing. Realizing it’s not about me. God stretches my stingy world to include everyone and everything and all of him. The desert fathers say your prayer’s authentic when you find yourself interceding for all. Caught up into Jesus’ preoccupation in eternity [Hebrews 7:25]…Prayer’s far more thrilling now than it was, but differently so. It’s far more terrifying. Not like terror that comes from fear of being harmed, but terror that comes from fear of being loved totally, absolutely. It’s the fear of coming to know God as God, and not our pathetic idol collection. I liked my idols, hated to give them up. My gods looked like me writ large and rarely disagreed with me. How sad. Ha! When you really pray you let God knock over your Dagons [1 Samuel 5:4]. And sometimes God’s way of smashing your idols can be just as ridiculous. The real God is love, infinite, selfless, terrifying love; but it’s the terror every human really wants deep down. We chase it all our lives. Thrill seekers and rebels are all seeking to fill that inner yearning for this terror. The paradox is, as soon as you finally succumb to the Terror of Isaac [Genesis 31:42], he casts out all fear. But it keeps you shaking … Stick to your prayer, every day. If you do, you’ll see what I’m saying; but in your own way. Don’t try to mimic what I’m saying. It takes years. Stick with it. One of the old monks here used to say to me when I was a novice, “In 30 years we can talk about prayer. First you have to do it.” I thought, Lord have mercy! But he was right … Prayer’s like my mother used to say of her marriage to dad after 62 years, “Even when you think it can’t, it gets better every year.” If your faithful to your vows, that’s true. If you’re not, it’s not. They didn’t have all fireworks, all sappy sweet. My dad was hard to live with and my mom was tough as nails. But they stuck with it, loved for the long haul. Talk about tedium. It fermented into a fine wine, intoxicating like only love can be. That’s prayer, when you get there to that point. Keep on…

Annie Dillard’s extreme critique of sacred liturgies grown dull, sleepy made me think of this monk. How unaware we can become of the wildly dangerous transactions liturgy, or prayer, places us in contact with…

The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.

Coptic Egyptian Liturgy, taken from http://www.copt.org

Just right.

Wendell Scott, taken from motorsport.com

African American NASCAR Hall of Fame driver, Wendell Scott, was quoted in an NPR interview as saying,

When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me.

I thought that was a fantastic way of expressing the heart of heroism in facing hardships. It made me think of St. Paul’s,

I can do all things in him who strengthens me. — Philippians 4:13

Nova Insula Utopia

In the first centuries of Christianity, one of the most potent testimonies to the truth of the Gospel to the pagan world was the strange courage of Christian martyrs who evidenced their rugged fortitude by pardoning their executors, singing eucharistic prayers to God as they were burned or offering their spilled blood as seeds sown for the life of the world.

The 3rd century Christian author, Tertullian, in his Apology, describes Christian behavior and reveals the bewilderment of pagan Romans in the face of a Christian ethos.

There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken then and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. “See,” they say, “how they love one another;” for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. “How they are ready even to die for one another;” for they themselves will sooner put to death.

An anonymous Christian author of the 2nd century A.D. penned a defense of Christianity referred to as the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. With simple eloquence, this letter describes for pagan readers the remarkable subculture created by this new faith in “the Word,” Jesus Christ.  Here he describes some of the paradoxes of that novelty:

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

For this author, the emergence of such extreme newness in history is no mere incidence of gradual socio-cultural evolution, but a flash of lightning, an irruption of heaven into earth:

For it is no earthly discovery, as I said, which was committed to them, neither do they care to guard so carefully any mortal invention, nor have they entrusted to them the dispensation of human mysteries. But truly the Almighty Creator of the Universe, the invisible God Himself from heaven planted among men the truth and the holy teaching which surpasses the wisdom of man, and fixed it firmly in their hearts. Not as any man might imagine, by sending to mankind a subaltern, or angel, or ruler, or one of those that direct the affairs of earth, or one of those who have been entrusted with the dispensations in heaven, but the very Artificer and Creator of the universe Himself, [the Word] by whom He made the heavens, by whom He enclosed the sea in its proper bounds, whose mysteries all the elements faithfully observe, from whom the sun hath received even the measure of the courses of the day to keep them, whom the moon obeys as He bids her shine by night, whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon, by whom all things are ordered and bounded and placed in subjection, the heavens and the things that are in the heavens, the earth and the things that are in the earth, the sea and the things that are in the sea, fire, air, abyss, the things that are in the heights, the things that are in the depths, the things that are between the two.

Him He sent unto them.

Bearing the charity of Christ into a violent and hate filled world is, for Christians born of the Artificer’s all-surpassing design, “just right.” Our dystopian world of sin and death is rife with countless opportunities for manifesting the utopian Kingdom of mercy and new life that Jesus inaugurated. People of faith are invited to fill the earth with their strange courage, first stammered before angels and men by the parched tongue of a gasping God.

Then said Jesus, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” — Luke 23:34

“Crcifixion,” Matthias Grünewald, c. 1520, taken from massexplained.com

Gardening

Christ as the Gardener encountering Mary Magdalene by Abraham Janssens. Taken from http://3.bp.blogspot.com/

A re-ploughed re-post

I love to garden, though it has been years since I’ve made the time to do it right. But more generally, I love being outdoors.

Some of my earliest childhood memories include a rapt fascination with the natural world. My dad says I would sit in front of an ant hill for lengthy periods of time, when I was 4 or 5 years old, and stare in motionless attention for half to three quarters of an hour. I can still recall — and feel — the throbbing joy I would feel smelling the sweet scent of those hot pink Spring azaleas and watching the bumble bees dart from blossom to blossom siphoning out the nectar with frantic excitement.

I also remember that, when I was around age 7, I would regularly steal away into a small patch of dense woods near our house, thrilled at the prospect of hiding away in secret solitude. There, very many times, I sensed a warm and joyful presence that seemed to emanate (for lack of a better word) harmony from the otherwise unruly tangle of sights, sounds and smells. I am convinced now it was God I intuited. Here is a terribly blurry picture of an old photo of the woods near my childhood house:

Woods

I can’t help but quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge here to give voice to that world I once loved:

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.

We’re born in love with nature and are naturally gardeners. But just as life can beat wonder out of us, so it can suck away our first love. Pope St. John XXIII said in his Journal of a Soul,

We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life.

The natural world, whether it be the cultivated garden or the wild meadow, enriches my capacity to imagine beauty. The kaleidoscope of colors, textures, tastes and fragrances overwhelms and uplifts my soul. For me, nature is awash in the lovely splendors of Paradise, caught between the beauty God first sang into being and the Final beauty that first sprang from the Garden Tomb outside Jerusalem. Yes, a radiant beauty and fragile splendor, but also a terrible beauty marked in its deepest heart by cycles of violent death and glorious rebirth. A paschal beauty.

The liber naturae, “book of nature” is itself a divinely inscribed scripture. Heaven’s iconostasis, an icon screen leaking rumors of heaven beyond.

Taken from catholictradition.org

I love to imagine theology as a blooming garden of language. Like an icon, it reveals the creating and redeeming God. Good theology is always beautiful theology. Not merely pretty, giving by its surface gleam a fleeting thrill. No. Theology is beautiful, written in its deepest structures with the goodness and truth of sacrificial love. Those who behold true beauty must, if they are to receive it, become sacrificial love.

The Cross is the highest revelation of beauty. Martin Luther said in 1515, “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

Theologians journey back to Gardens of Eden, Gethsemane, Golgotha. We are invited by the Spirit to inhabit the imagination of the Risen Gardener (John 20:15). Our minds are open to the rioting colors and fragrances, textures, tastes and sounds that overflow the realms of nature and grace and water the world’s deserts.

Beauty never exists for its own sake, but, like the flower that yearns to conceive and bear edible fruit, is by nature life giving.

Poetry is needed.

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.
– T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, 1930

The cultivated garden is writ deep with the law of the gift. Plants sink hungry roots in fertile, sodden soil, spout leaves to receive the sun’s light, only then to offer these gifts received as gifts given. They transform what they receive into nourishing fruits. Such generosity! And seed-bearing fruit benefits both giver and receiver.

Think of bread. What an unspeakably selfless gift, wheat wholly renouncing itself to give life. Harvested, winnowed, crushed, kneaded, baked in fire only to rise again as food. A gift total, absolute. An entire existence dedicated to the good of the one who eats.

As this broken bread was scattered over the hills
and then, when gathered, became one mass,
so may Thy Church be gathered
from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.
For Thine is the glory and the power
through Jesus Christ for evermore. — From “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” written c. 90 A.D.

O selfless wheat, you are nature’s sacrament, mystic sign of a Creator become Bread, crushed for the life of the world. O Christ, Wheat of God, given as food to us, the ones who crushed you.

Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His Word to Flesh He turns. — St. Thomas Aquinas, “Pange lingua”

“God is Bread,” “God is love.” Such dangerous food.  Eat my Flesh, eat this Bread. Those who eat this Bread will live forever…as food for others. A martyr’s love, whose shed blood is seeds for the life of the world.

“A journey to no end,” truly, for the endless God is love, is bread.

When we consent to join Christ gardening in his Garden, our lives yield super-abundant fruits. These 9 — charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, chastity — exist in us to nourish others. My joy is joyless if it is not your joy as well.

I rejoice in my sufferings for you. — Colossians 1:24

I remember years ago one of my daughters asked me, “Daddy, are you happy?” I said, “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?” They said, “When you’re happy I feel safe.”

The greatest joy that comes from fatherhood is to know what benefits me benefits them. If my happiness were just for me, how useless and dead it would be.

Thank you, God, for your lavish gardens. For the vocation to tend your gardens.

Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit’s final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christian’s truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master’s art and make the desolate earth grow green. — Vigen Guroian, “Inheriting Paradise”

Galilee in the Spring, from c2.staticflickr.com

Your yes

I look at my old journals now and again and enjoy re-discovering old insights.

Once when I was visiting a Marian shrine in Maryland back somewhere around 1990, an elderly priest saw me kneeling in prayer. He walked over and put his hand on my shoulder, saying to me,

You’ve got it right, son. Pray. Be a man of prayer. All the good God wants to do through you depends on only one thing. Not your talents or smarts. On your yes. When you pray, say, “Here I am, Lord, send me. Use me.” I spent too much of my life living others’ lives, trying to fix them and make them good. I want them to be good, but I know now only God does that. If we let him have his way in us he can do anything he wants through us. Doing a thousand impressive deeds without God is nice, but picking up a pin with God is real power. The devil’s unimpressed with our good works but he’s terrified of our prayer because prayer fills all we do with God. That’s why [the devil] tries to convince you not to pray. What you’re doing now is the most important thing you will ever do. Do it lots. Don’t worry about successful prayer, just be faithful to prayer. Say yes, okay? God bless you.

He blessed me and walked away.

Reminds me of The Brothers Karamazov, when Fr. Zossima says:

If you had shone, your light would have lighted the way for others, and the one who did wickedness would perhaps not have done so in your light. And even if you do shine, but see that people are not saved even with your light, remain steadfast, and do not doubt the power of the heavenly light; believe that if they are not saved now, they will be saved later. And if they are not saved, their sons will be saved, for your light will not die, even when you are dead. The righteous man departs, but his light remains.

Taken from izquotes.com

An imperishable stroll

This last Sunday morning I took a walk with my daughter and her dog, Cola, along the levee bordering the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I will never lose my gratitude for being able to live by the water.

When you live by the sea, everything changes, and the change is the same as when you believe in God: you are never alone. There is a Greater Presence next to you every minute. You have to take account of this Presence every day, at least unconsciously…Maybe all the waves are saying is I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU until the end of time. Like God…. – Peter Kreeft

I snapped a few photos along the way.

We had so much fun running along the rocks and laughing about nothing much.

How sad, it came and went as all things must.

Later that Sunday evening we went to Mass. I offered there, in quiet gratitude, all of those lost moments up to God for safe keeping in his imperishable Kingdom.

Spe enim immortālis est.

For today I thought I’d just share some captioned pix with you.

Catherine

“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.” — William Shakespeare

Wave breaker

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Clovers

“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could she ask? A few flowers at her feet and above her the stars.” — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Magnolia

Happy is the man who can with vigorous wing / Mount to those luminous serene fields! / The man whose thoughts, like larks, / Take liberated flight toward the morning skies / Who hovers over life and understands without effort / The language of flowers and voiceless things!” — Charles Pierre Baudelaire

Cola and C

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” — Dr. Seuss