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.


Do you know me, O God?


We had a fantastic faculty retreat here at the seminary recently, and I took copious notes. So know they will be bleeding into my blog now and again. Let me start with a teaser.

The retreat master was talking with us about prayer — a good retreat topic — and addressing the question of what constitutes a healthy and full prayer life as a Christian. He said something like this (as I furiously jotted down his insights in my notebook):

Prayer is really at core about fostering an intimate exchange between each person and God. It’s heart speaking to heart, a shared exchange of personal knowledge. Prayer is to know God and to allow oneself to be known by God. The first part we as priests can be really good at. We study, think, reflect and gain all kinds of relevant God-data. We can say we really know who God is. We know all about him and are experts who can speak eloquently and movingly about God and his ways. But can we really say that we really know God or that God really knows us? We might retort in regard to that second point: “God is omniscient! Of course God knows me. It’s a given.” Yes, yes. But is that it, really? Think about it. If I meet someone who’s never really spoken to me before, hasn’t told me about themselves or asked me personally anything about myself, or even shown any interest in really getting to know the living and breathing me; and suddenly they walk up to me and tell me they know me, know everything about me — and start sharing with me intimate details from my life. Well, I’m going to get creeped out. That’s creepy, right? But you see, Jesus isn’t a creep. He invites us to reveal ourselves to him in prayer, to share our hearts and minds and desires and frustrations. Everything. And he wants to do the same, and waits to see if we are interested. If you were God, how interested would you really look in what God had to say? How carefully, attentively, lovingly do you listen for his voice? And let me say, ask yourself this: If all God knew about you was what you shared with him in prayer, how well would he really know you? If you can’t say that God knows you — based on your self disclosure — at least as much as the person in your life who knows you best, then your prayer life is seriously deficient. Using divine omniscience to excuse ourselves from opening up to God, pouring out our hearts to him and speaking to him about all things, great and small, is a misuse of our theology of divine omniscience. Jesus stands at the door and knocks, but if we keep the door shut and locked, and sit curled up with our theology book on the couch as we bear our soul’s deepest secrets to a friend…well, Jesus may say, when we meet him one day: “I don’t know you.”


Tempted by Good


A few scattered thoughts today taken from old notes I have from a series on discernment I taught back in the 1990s.

+ + + +

A Missionary of Charity Sister at the Gift of Peace home for the homeless and dying in Washington, D.C. once shared with me something she said Mother Teresa taught the M.C. Sisters. I’ve always found it helpful:

The devil very often tempts the good with good things, so that good people, distracted by things they should not be doing, compromise the few good things they should be doing. So instead of doing what they’ve been called to well, they do many good things God never asked them to do, poorly.

Frequently in my experience that’s the origin of burnout among good-willed people who are not careful to discern their limits and remain in them. Many lurking motives drive people’s departure into diversionary good-deeds that exceed healthy limits, including: (1) fleeing from emotional pain in other parts of life, (2) being driven by guilt or (3) being pulled along by a compulsive need for approval or praise from others.

That’s why the “discerning life” is crucial, which daily examines not only what good should be done, but why one should do it, and what good fruits one should look to see. While the virtue of zeal (passion in doing good for God) keeps us in hot pursuit of excellence, the virtue of meekness (recognizing and embracing one’s limited role in the Body of Christ) resists the temptation to always be restless, unsettled, unsatisfied with the limits of one’s present life-mission, and always itching for “something else.” Surface-skimming dilettantes, who balk or flee at the first sign of adversity, challenge, opposition or boredom, fail to recognize and seize the always-present opportunities to sink deep the roots of virtue into the present moment. Opportunities for greatness, like the commandments of God, are never far out of reach for the meek:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. — Exodus 30:11-14

Years ago a mentor said to me:

Over the years I have moved from always wanting to do more than I should, to being content with doing all that is possible, to simply embracing what I’ve been called by God to do. Zeal joined to humility gives birth to twins: wisdom and obedience. And the best sign I’ve found that one has given birth to these two is to cease complaining.

Let me leave you with a 4 minute snippet from an interview Conan O’Brien did with comedian Louis C.K. that went viral back in 2013. Hear how C.K. “gets” the temptation to flee the hard graces of the moment. Excuse the language. Listen here:

Jesus, help me

[note: over the next several weeks I enter into an administrative wind-sprint as the seminary academic year commences, so I will refrain from responding to blog-post comments, but ask you earnestly to please still comment. I deeply value your input. Others benefit and I relish every thought shared. At the end of August I will reply to them all and resume regular responses. Thank you.]

“Moses and the Burning Bush” at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. wikimedia.org

Here’s a fantastic homily preached by a priest from Malta, Fr. Nicholas Cachia, who’s here in Omaha for the summer. The first reading from Exodus included these verses:

Pharaoh was already near when the children of Israel looked up
and saw that the Egyptians were on the march in pursuit of them.
In great fright they cried out to the LORD.
And they complained to Moses,
“Were there no burial places in Egypt
that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert?
Why did you do this to us?
Why did you bring us out of Egypt?
Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said,
‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians’?
Far better for us to be the slaves of the Egyptians
than to die in the desert.”
But Moses answered the people,
“Fear not! Stand your ground,
and you will see the victory the LORD will win for you today.
These Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.
The LORD himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”

Homily. Monday Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time – 20 July 2015 (St Cecilia’s Cathedral, Omaha): Fr. Nicholas Cachia

[The Pharisees said to Jesus:] “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you”.

Isn’t this also a temptation we go through? We want to see signs, we want to have something that serves us as a proof for our belief! We want to sound reasonable before the world. We wouldn’t like people to consider us as foolish in the choices we make.
Today, the first reading from the book of Exodus presents us with a great example of someone who believes, who entrusts himself and his cause completely into the hands of God: Moses.
Let’s have a look at the very awkward situation Moses finds himself in.

The Israelites have just left Egypt. They must have journeyed for some days till they arrived at the Red Sea. Pharaoh has second thoughts about allowing them to leave. Thus he gathers his army – the author of Exodus is attentive in giving us the details of the power of the Egyptian army – Pharaoh gathers his army so that he could chase the Israelites. With chariots, horses and trained soldiers he is certainly much more powerful and much faster than the tired slaves who have just left the country.
The scene is set. “The children of Israel looked up and saw that the Egyptians were
on the march in pursuit of them”.
They were trapped: the sea on the one side; the powerful Egyptian army on the other.
And they complained to Moses the leader. Shouldn’t he have known better? Shouldn’t he, as a leader, have planned the route better? He, who was raised in the court of Pharaoh, shouldn’t he have known better the temper of the king? All reasonable questions and considerations.
A very awkward situation indeed! Where would I … you … have stood? Whose side would I have taken?

Let’s enter with our imagination into the heart of Moses, this man who experienced the burning bush, who met the God who heard the cry of the poor and who has come down to save his people from the slavery of the Egyptians.
I would imagine him raising this prayer to God at that very moment. Lord, what am I to do? We are in this situation because we have obeyed you. You have shown us the way. And now? But, Lord God, you are the God of the impossible. I remember the promise you made to me at the moment of my calling: “I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to … a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3,17). I know you are a faithful God, who will save us from the hands of the mighty Egyptians. I trust you completely. I surrender myself and my people into your hands. Help us, save us, lead us.
It is from this trusting relationship with the Lord that Moses gets strength to address the frightened and angry Israelites with these simple, yet very powerful words: “Fear not! Stand your ground, and you will see the victory the Lord will win for you today. The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still”.
How right was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews when he said: “By faith Moses left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (7,27). By faith … seeing him who is invisible!
And so we also turn to God, our Savior and our Protector. We know how much he loves us, how much he cares for us, and so … no we do not ask for a sign … we believe in him, we entrust ourselves in his hands, we will follow on his path even when we do not understand.

Lord, in every need let me come to You with humble trust saying, “Jesus, help me.”
In all my doubts, perplexities, and temptations, Jesus, help me. In hours of loneliness, weariness, and trials, Jesus, help me.
In the failure of my plans and hopes; in disappointments, troubles, and sorrows, Jesus, help me.
When others fail me and Your grace alone can assist me, help me.
When I throw myself on Your tender love as a father and savior, Jesus, help me.
When my heart is cast down by failure at seeing no good come from my efforts, Jesus, help me.
When I feel impatient and my cross irritates me, Jesus, help me.
When I am ill and my head and hands cannot work and I am lonely, Jesus, help me.
Always, always, in spite of weakness, falls, and shortcomings of every kind, Jesus, help me and never forsake me.

(final prayer taken from http://www.beliefnet.com/Prayers/Christian/Illness/Prayer-In-Time-Of-Trouble.aspx)

Spes nostra, “Our hope”

15th century “Assumption of the Virgin Mary.” udayton.edu

Today is a Feast of hope, joy, resurrection and new life. Today is a Feast celebrating Christ’s defeat of death and despair as he raises His Mother from the tomb, body and soul, as the incorruptable Ark of the Covenant who gave flesh to God. Mary is the perfect icon of the Church, so whatever Jesus does for Mary, He also does for us…as long as we also, like her, say Yes to His will.

Better than any theological commentary I could aspire to give today is the hope-filled, honest and tender witness of a father eulogizing his 12 year old little girl who died of cancer. His daughter’s name is Kylie. No father should have to eulogize his daughter, but Kylie’s dad proves that in Christ, even in the face of great tragedy, hope never dies. As I listened to his testimony, I could feel the love that must have filled Kylie’s home, and imagined that when she died and came to the Father’s House, it surely would have felt very familiar.

My thanks to seminarian Patrick Russell, a cousin of Kylie, who shared this youtube link with me. Patrick told me with utmost sincerity that Kylie was the most real and profound witness to Christ he had ever known. He also said that the impact of her witness played a significant role in his desire to be a priest, called lay down his life for God and for others.

I’d also like to (re)share a story I posted back in May. After my 4th child was born, a priest said to me in Confession: “Isn’t it wonderful God has entrusted His children to you for a such brief time?” I thought, “Wonderful? Stressful!” Then he offered some powerful advice:

Your mission is to help them know and love Him … God wants parenting to be a joint venture, which means you have to ask Him all the time what He wants for them. Ask why He created them, what their life-mission is. What gifts He’s given them. How best to remedy their sins and weaknesses … Teach them how to hear His voice. And the best way to do that is for you to be a good son of the Father. Listen to His voice. Be close to Jesus who shows you the Father … You don’t possess your children. They’re not yours. They’re His. Your greatest act of love is leading them back to their Father … The best news you could ever hear on Judgment Day is that, when your children finally saw the face of God, they blurted out: “You remind me of my dad!”

No doubt in my mind, those would have been among Kylie’s first words before the face of God.

Enjoy these 12 minutes of beauty:

Spirituality worthy of Christ

Nikoli Berdyaev. wikimedia.org

“So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbour, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbour to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk 10:25ff ). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is his taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.” — Pope Francis

“Spiritualty is in vogue these days. Everybody likes to say, ‘Oh, sorry, I’m spiritual but not religious.’ Well, sorry but you ain’t Christian. So much of what is called spirituality today is just dressed up egoism, focused on personal fulfillment and self-satisfaction, substituting spiritual pleasures for carnal ones. Oh, yes, we can talk about being really very self-aware, self-actualized, emptied of the ego, but it’s had without obeying the divine commandments and repenting 70 x 7 times to God and neighbor for our falls. It’s communing with a god of our own making. The holy Fathers say obedience to the commandments of God, war with the vices, submitting yourself to the demands of charity in God’s family, a church packed with smelly, stinky, unpleasant brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers you never woulda chose: this is spirituality. Real spirituality is obsessed not with ego-satisfaction, but it’s single-minded about God’s glory and the neighbor’s needs. The real test of real spirituality ain’t personal peace or contentment, it’s faithfulness in the blackest darkness, love without reciprocity, and joy in the monotony of daily duties. St. Maximus, who had his hand chopped off and his tongue cut out, said: ‘To harbor no envy, no anger, no resentment against an offender is still not to have charity for him. It is possible, without any charity, to avoid rendering evil for evil. But to render, spontaneously, good for evil — such belongs to a perfect spiritual love.’ That’s spirituality for the Christian. And St. James says that real religion means visiting orphans and widows (James 1:27).” — Fr. Tom Hopko

“Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” – Nikoli Berdyaev

“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear gathering mold in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.” ― St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great. cloisteredlife.com

Boiling marital love


[from my journal 7.20.2015]

Great story I heard today from a priest who was on mission in Africa over two decades ago. He met a young man whose faith tradition was Sikh and who was from India. In their conversation the priest learned that this man was working in Africa with an Indian company, but was getting ready to move back to India as he was about to get married to a woman he’d been engaged to for 12 years. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents when the girl was 8 and he was 12. When the man detected the priest’s look of surprise, he said:

I see you’re surprised abou this as an American, and wonder how someone could ever have a loving and happy marriage if they did not fall in love with their spouse to be and choose to marry. Okay, let me share an analogy that might help you see my perspective. Think of marriage as a pot of water and culture as a pile of sticks. In your culture, marriage is a boiling pot of water steaming with passion, while your culture is a pile of cold, wet sticks. In our culture, marriage is a pot full of cold water, while the wood of our Sikh culture is ablaze with fire. So, while your boiling water sits atop the cold and wet sticks, it warms the sticks for a brief time but eventually the water cools and turns cold. When our cold pot of water is placed on our tight-knit culture burning with passion for lifelong marriage, the water slowly warms eventually to boiling. While both systems have their problems, from what I’ve seen of the state of American marriage, I’d choose our fire over your boiling water.

The priest then said to me:

So when I came home I was determined to expend my energies on drying out and kinding wood wherever I found it. I realized that though we need better marriage prep, the church needs to worry less about marriage prep and than it does about fostering cultures that feed marriages and families with more light and more heat. This is the fire Jesus longed to see burning. I’ve always worked hardest in my parishes growing communities with such a culture. It’s the only way I see out of the mess we’re in.

After he said that, I couldn’t help but recall the words of St. John Paul II in his Letter to Families:

Only if the truth about freedom and the communion of persons in marriage and in the family can regain its splendour, will the building of the civilization of love truly begin and will it then be possible to speak concretely—as the Council did—about “promoting the dignity of marriage and the family.”

May it be so. Amen.