Mystics in the Yuck

Tapestry of Nativity in the nave of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France.

Since “the human person has an inherent social dimension”, and “the first and basic expression of that social dimension of the person is the married couple and the family”, spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family. Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union. — Amoris Laetitia #316 (Pope Francis)

This is my favorite passage in all of Amoris Laetitia. I thought of this today because this time of year tends to bring out the best and the worst in family life, and because I had a conversation with a friend this week that included an amazing insight she said I could quote. She has tons of family issues — addiction, disability, divorce, unemployment, just to name a few. As we talked about these various trials, and the impact they had on her, she said something close to this:

But you know, Tom, I was praying the other day asking Jesus how I was supposed to find Him in all of this mess, as I just could not quiet my soul enough to get into the season and pray deeply. So much yuckiness. I was so incredibly frustrated. Like I wanted to either run from my problems or from God. But on Christmas eve I felt Him say to me, as I sat in the pew with my restless children,

“Child, in the unrest, fighting, turmoil you accompany my Family well in these days. I was conceived amid suspicion, rejection and fear, born homeless, hunted by Herod, welcomed by a massacre and sent into exile in Egypt. My mother and father found me dwelling in the midst of these un-ideal circumstances. Found joy. I chose to begin my life there so I could be closest of all to suffering families. So there, smack dab in the middle of your trials, is where I feel most at home. Welcome me and you will find me. It’s in these tangles that I love to weave my most beautiful tapestries. But you’ll have to wait until the next world to see it finished.”

Is that not stinkin’ awesome?

It is.

And, as “Is that not stinkin’ awesome?” is a loose rendering of Mary’s Magnificat, let me leave you with that song about the God who loves tangles:


St. Bernard on love

I came across this passage by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in his magisterial, On Loving God. It filled me with intense gratitude for my existence, for my redemption from sin’s fall into non-existence and for the dignity of being called a child of God.

‘What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given me?’ (Ps. 116:12) In his first work he gave me myself; in his second work he gave himself; when he gave me himself, he gave me back myself. Given, and regiven, I owe myself twice over. What can I give God in return for himself? Even if I could give him myself a thousand times, what am I to God?

Then, as I lingered on Bernard’s question, I suddenly found myself drawn to pray the Chaplet of Mercy. There is no other return equal, and all other returns of gratitude find their completion in this one:

Eternal Father, I offer you the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.

After about 15 minutes of repetition, I jotted this down on a piece of paper: “As a member of Christ’s Body, anointed in Baptism-Confirmation as a royal priest in Him, I am empowered to offer God to God; Son to Father. In this way I share in the eternal eucharist of the Son to the Father for eternally begetting Him as ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…’ What return shall I make to the Lord for all His goodness to me? This is it. I offer my body, His body as a living sacrifice. Romans 12:1.”

Then one of my children interrupted my prayer and said, “Dad, can you come help me?”

Romans 12:2-21.

Ite, missa est.

I went.

“And a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)

On Christmas day, I called a friend of mine from many years ago, whom I have written about here before. She worked in pastoral ministry for decades, with a special focus on the home-bound and those in nursing homes. I’ll call her Mary. Mary is magnanimous — “big souled” — and a brilliant woman who is open to the Spirit in ways I rarely ever see. In particular, when she speaks of her experience of God (which is often mystical) it is actually very difficult to notice she is talking about herself at all, as she sees all the graces she receives as always for and about others. It’s really amazing. I know many people who talk about their personal experiences of God, some mystical; but very few people I know describe the graces they receive in such a naturally selfless, other-focused way. If Christian mysticism can easily devolve into Mist, I and schism, this woman was a genuine Christian mystic, the real-time antidote to pseudo-mysticism.

Reminds me of the way my moral theology professor once explained holiness: “Holiness is the perfection of charity, loving like God. And charity is being all-about the other’s well-being. So when they angels sing before God, ‘Holy, holy, holy’, what they’re really singing is, ‘Other, Other, Other.’ Sounds like a Trinity to me!”

In any event, I wanted to share one insight she gave me in our brief exchange.  Mary was in the hospital once for a procedure, and a young lady, who knew Mary had ministered to her father in the nursing home, found out from the parish that she was in the hospital for a procedure. This young lady’s father was dying. Well, Mary immediately got up and went to this man’s room. She said,

He was so agitated, afraid of dying. No one could calm him. When I visit the dying I usually bring a crucifix and tell them of Jesus’ nearness. But I sensed this man was too fragile, too afraid of the cross. So I felt God asked me to bring him Baby Jesus. So I told him, “Blessed Mother wants to give you Baby Jesus to be with you. He is so trusting and loving and gentle. All He wants to do is give you His joy and trust that all will be well in God’s hands and Mary’s arms. Let go.” Then I prayed over him and asked Jesus to reveal to him His childhood. And to St. Therese and asked her to lead him by the hand to the infant Jesus, so he could rest there with Him. And you know what, Tom? He calmed and relaxed and rested and a few hours later died peacefully.

At his funeral I imagined him playing with the child Jesus and laughing. Isn’t God so good, Tom?

Sometimes people who are afraid and are weak and vulnerable need God to come to them in the same way. Meet them where there at. And how good God is to have met us in every place we are in life. Don’t you think?

Yes, exactly.

“I don’t know, tell me?!” — God

When I was a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I remember a very specific time that I went over to my grandparents house with my sister to stay for the weekend. In those days I wanted to be an ornithologist and so I was obsessed with knowing everything about every type of bird I would see. That day I recall having with me an Audubon birdwatcher’s guide. My grandfather and my sister were having an intense conversation in the sitting room, but my grandfather told me to give him updates on all of the birds in the yard and he gave me a pad and pen to keep notes. Every time I popped in the room with a fresh update, he very patiently listened with eager expressions of amazement, saying things like: “Wow!” “You’re kidding?” “Really?” “You saw that? How do I get them to visit our yard more?”

I also remember very distinctly what this exchange felt like. This stately older man, who would speak with my father using an incomprehensible vocabulary, was actually learning from me. I felt absolutely immense, and immensely important to this larger than life man who did not know something I did. And the fact that both he and I felt joy in my little mission to rectify that deficiency has always remained, for me, his life’s greatest lesson to me.

The Archbishop of New Orleans celebrated the opening Mass of the Holy Spirit two years ago at the seminary and preached a fantastic homily.

The refrain of his homily was, “I don’t know.”

He began with the story of a young man he knew who was dying of terminal cancer. The man was married with children, and at the end of his illness the Archbishop was able to have a very moving conversation with the man. The man said that as he approached death, he had become very aware of two painful regrets he had in life. The first was that he had not said “I love you” often enough to his wife and his children, and had not expressed his affection for them often enough with embraces and simple gestures. “But it was this man’s second regret,” Archbishop said, “that I want to focus on.” He continued,

He told me through tears that he had been dishonest most of his adult life, refusing to say, “I don’t know.” He said, “Archbishop, I always had to have it together, look like I was in control and on my game. I couldn’t ever seem weak or ignorant, so I always found a way to be the man in the know. So I was really dishonest. With others, and with myself. Now I see, when I’m no longer in control of anything, and don’t have all the answers for my children who don’t understand why I have to go away forever. I see now that being honest and vulnerable is what it really means to be human. I wish I hadn’t learned this so late in the game.”

My brother seminarians, do you see what he is saying here? He is saying to all of us: Don’t wait to learn.

The Archbishop then commended to the seminarians the example of Socrates’ learnèd ignorance. “This, my brothers, is the wisdom of knowing what you don’t know. The humility of freely admitting your ignorance and having the desire to remedy it.” He continued, “You probably know the story of the time Socrates met a man famed in Athens for his learning. But Socrates at once saw that this man’s arrogance, and realzied that this gave Socrates a distinct advantage. ‘It seems,’ Socrates said, ‘that I am wiser than you to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ My brothers, a life filled with honest questions, questions that are actually open to answers, is a life marked with humility and wonder. And let me say with great emphasis: We need priests with wonder and with humility!”

The Archbishop ended with these remarks:

To gain this wisdom, we must approach God first by heartily confessing our ignorance — dare I say, our stupidity. Ask Him to illumine your blind spots and kindle your desire to learn. Ask Him for the humility to learn from others what He wishes, which is often — if we take the Old Testament prophets seriously — to learn from people we don’t want to learn from. Only then can we be genuinely formed by His grace.

I pray each day that God inform me of my weaknesses so they can serve my ministry and not hinder it. But I always add, “But be gentle with me, Lord!” Now that’s a prayer God infallibly answers! [laughter] I invite you, my brothers, to join me in that prayer. Ask God to reveal your weakness to you and then teach you how to turn that weakness into humility.

Today is the birth of God in the flesh. In Christ we discover the Most High is a God who, though omniscient, loves to learn from His children about the wonders He has done. How astonishing are the heights of His humility and the riches of His poverty! As Chesterton said, “It may be that God has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1).

Credo in unum Deum, “I believe into one God”?

“I believe…”

I am a Catholic and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist. — Flannery O’Connor

Back in the late 1990’s, the parochial vicar in our parish was teaching a course on John’s Gospel in the permanent diaconate program. He and I would sit together often and talk about Scripture, and one day he shared with me his enthusiasm over his discovery that when the Greek preposition “in” (in Greek, eis) is used in John 3:16, it’s actually more accurately translated with the more dynamic “into.” So:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes into him should not perish but have eternal life.

We shared our enthusiasm over the discovery of this polyvalent preposition! We theology nerds get excited about such things.

Though I’m no philologist, it seems to me that “believing into” Jesus captures more fittingly the faith’s radical and total claims on those who profess it. This makes faith less star gazing and more high diving, with all the attending elements of risk, thrill and all-or-nothing. The Greek word for baptism, baptizein, means to immerse or plunge into water. I think that’s cool!

Orthodox Baptism.

So when you profess your baptismal faith in the Creed you are really saying, “I believe into one God, the Father Almighty…” St. Anselm says, Credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order to understand.” Being Christian requires more than understanding of the Christian faith, which is why we do not say, “I understand one God, the Father Almighty…” Understanding simply means one has acquired a conceptual grasp of Christianity’s beliefs, while the act of faith means the Christian vision of everything is now my vision of everything. It defines how I see everything, is the standard by which I judge how I am to live and eat and spend money and have sex and speak and work. This is why Catholics who say, “the Church believes..” really mean, “I believe…”

In Jesus, God has opened Himself up to us in an absolute way, revealed Himself and invited us to enter into His inner life. The gift of faith is God’s invitation to enter, while the act of faith on our part is our acceptance of, and entry into, that gift; as well as our acceptance of all the claims “entry into God” makes on us. And this is why prayer is the handmaiden of faith, because prayer allows faith to come alive in us as our minds descend into our hearts, where God dwells, and there we encounter for ourselves face to face the One in whom we have believed (John 4:42).

At my Dad’s Orthodox church growing up, I used to love to chat with the Russians after the Liturgy in the parish hall. They had great stories! I would ask them questions about life under the Soviet Communist government, and they would share with me some remarkable stories. I remember in particular one older Siberian woman who was very sick on this particular Sunday. Coughing, red from fever, but there she was, standing for the entire 2.5 hours fully engaged in worship. This was back in 1989. I complimented her afterward that she persevered throughout the whole Liturgy in spite of her sickness. She said, with her thick accent: “It is nothing. Millions have died for our holy faith under the Soviet yoke. I cannot come to worship God for a little time on Sunday? This is nothing.” Then she continued, “You Americans are shallow because you do not know what it is to suffer. We Russians, we know suffering; and it can make you an angel or a demon. We have plenty of demons, because in USSR there is no love, and suffering without love makes you like black coal; but suffering with love like an ember. Faith means something only when it costs you everything.”


Years later I would read Fr. Walter Ciszek’s stunning spiritual autobiography, He Leadeth Me. He gave witness to the same faith proved by suffering hardship. Here’s a sample:

We said Mass in draftystorage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of consecrated wine produced upon the soul.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen remarked frequently that “theoretical atheists,” who reject the idea of a God, are not the greatest problem in the world. Rather, the real problem is with the practical atheists who believe in God, but are not into Him, living as if His existence were of no consequence.

I long to believe into God. I’m certain you do as well. Join me in praying for this to be so:


Unsung heroes

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 (Matt. 7:21).

This month I heard three stories that I had to share here. People like these, and countless others, are among the sweetest fruits of the Incarnation. I told a seminarian the other day that one of his gravest duties as a priest will be to notice the hidden greatness in such people, and encourage them.

The first story I was not able to get permission to recount, but it seemed general enough to share without compromising privacy. The second and third I did ask permission to share.

My wife met a man recently who is in his 70’s. He told her all about his wife. She has Parkinson’s and he cares for her at home. He said it’s a 24/7 commitment, but that’s “what I signed up for when I said ‘I do’”. He apologized to Patti after about 30 minutes of talking. “I’m sorry, I know you have to go. Thank you for listening.”

Early this month I met a woman who has a teenage son. Her boyfriend left her soon after the baby was born and since then she’s never married. “It’s been a hard 14 years. I came back to my faith soon after we broke up. Someone introduced me to Theology of the Body and I decided then to not have sex outside of marriage. To wait. But every man I have met since then has not wanted to wait, so here I am still single. I’m just like, really dude? But I won’t compromise. I trust God knows what He’s doing and my son is the most important thing in my life. I want him to see I am serious about my faith. Pray for me.”

Last week I spoke to a woman whose mother still lives alone in her house, but is at the point where she will no longer be able to remain independent. Her mom’s in her early 80’s. The woman said she is the only one of her siblings who still speaks to her mom, so she carries all the burden. She herself has a full time job and children both in college and still at home. Her mom is stubborn and does not express gratitude, but complains about everything. “I know it’s the dementia. She used to be sweet. But it’s hard to deal with every day. I struggle with anger and guilt. But I try not to show it to her. Mostly my husband has to listen to my frustration. Poor guy.” I told her I’d email her this quote from Jewish author Dennis Prager that I posted once before in this blog. She emailed me after receiving it: “What a relief that quote gives me. Thanks a bunch. Pray for me.”

Here’s the quote:

As 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 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 the $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.

A Day in the Life

I took some fun pictures and recorded some sounds this last week of things that, for various reasons, captured my attention. I include captions.


What can I say? Heaven spotlighted for me this odd piece of New Orleans artwork as I drove by. The man behind me beeped with impatience as I paused to snap this shot.


The International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, sculpted in 1947, has visited 100 countries and came to New Orleans this last week. My 90-year old mom and I prayed in front of her last Saturday. My mom’s prayers are nuclear.


Someone left their coffee thermos on the levee. No one in sight anywhere.


Someone left their champagne bottle on the levee, 300 yards from the coffee thermos. Also no one in sight.


The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


December 17. Quietly protesting the claims of winter.


Welcome relief after a 45 minute walk-run along the levee.


Festive neighbors.


A December Monarch on a holdout goldenrod!


Party bus stopping at a neighbor’s house. They were rockin!


I made a Twenty One Pilots symbol with my ketchup.


Catherine’s sketch of a wolf.

I took a 7 hour bus ride this week, and during the ride, as I was writing a lecture on the Mass, this announcement came on:

Maria’s high school, Mount Carmel Academy, had their Christmas concert the week before last, and I recorded them singing their Alma Mater. It always gets to Patti and me.