Tempted by Good

[re-post from 2015]

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

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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 do well, they do many good things God never asked them to do, and poorly.

I am convinced from personal experience that the greater part of good discernment is not discerning what to do but what not to do. Frequently in my experience that’s the origin of burnout, bitterness and disillusionment among good-willed people who are not careful to observe 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, (3) fear of confronting others with a “no” or (4) the compulsive need for approval and praise from others.

That’s why the “discerning life” is crucial, which daily examines not only what good should be done, but why it should be done and what good fruits one should look to see. According to Fr. Jordan Aumann, good fruits especially important to see include the enhancement of one’s primary vocational commitments, peace and joy, while bad fruits include distraction from one’s primary vocational commitments, inner restlessness, confusion, obsessiveness and doubt. 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; always itching for “something else.” Surface-skimming dilettantes, who balk or flee at the first sign of adversity, opposition or boredom, fail to recognize and seize the opportunities to sink deep 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 my spiritual director said to me:

Over the years I have moved from doing 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. And I discovered that, beneath my evasion of God’s will was not just pride but sloth.

As I was unfamiliar with what sloth meant in that regard, he shared with me St. John of the Cross’ words on sloth. This vantage, he said, helped him immensely in his growth embracing the “reality God,” as he put it, and not the “fantasy God.”

Since [the slothful] are so used to finding delight in spiritual practices, they become bored when they do not find it. If they do not receive in prayer the satisfaction they crave for after all it is fit that God withdraw this so as to try them — they do not want to return to it, or at times they either give up prayer or go to it begrudgingly. Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection (which requires denying one’s own will and satisfaction for God) to the pleasure and delight of their own will. As a result they strive to satisfy their own will rather than God’s. Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.

Beginners also become bored when told to do something unpleasant. Because they look for spiritual gratifications and delights, they are extremely lax in the fortitude and labor perfection demands. Like those who are reared in luxury, they run sadly from everything rough, and they are scandalized by the cross, in which spiritual delights are found. And in the more spiritual exercises their boredom is greater. Since they expect to go about in spiritual matters according to the whims and satisfactions of their own will, entering by the narrow way of life, about which Christ speaks, is saddening and repugnant to them.

Holy Spirit, lead me in the way of your will…

Sacraments of beauty’s protest

Earlier this week I made time to shabbat, to “cease” my non-stop life and attend to the immediate, the present, the here and now, in order to look at all God has made and say with Him, “Very good.”

After watching the sunrise with a stiff east wind caressing my face, and driving my daughters to play practice, I went to a local bookstore to read one of my favorite books.

For 2 hours.

20,000 different species of butterfly. Flowers in flight refracting divine de-light.

For me they have always been sacraments of beauty’s protest, gracefully yielding against the unyielding, rebellious, predatory designs of as-yet unredeemed nature. Icons of the glory to be revealed, per Romans 8:18-30. They transform from caterpillars who steal and destroy to live, into butterflies who feed only on what is freely offered to them and, by pollinating, give back the gift of new life.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed [metamorphoumetha] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18)

I remember as a child watching a blue jay eat a still-fluttering sulphur butterfly on the sidewalk, swallowing the body and leaving on the ground two perfect yellow wings. Lifeless beauty laid on a concrete sepulcher. I recall being profoundly sad, but only sitting still, as if waiting for something unexpected to happen. Beneath the crush of violence, beauty still gently smiled. How could God not act? I sat and looked, wondering if there would be a heaven for butterflies. There to live again, soaring their immortal protest.

To God they soar, I’m certain of it, as “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

When I am discouraged, weary, disheartened, disillusioned, I pull out my book and remember: Butterflies are. Like the Seraphim, existing there only to sing with colors the splendor of divine Beauty.

After I left the bookstore, I went to visit the levee. They were everywhere, dancing in the sky under the brilliant sun, skipping from flower to flower. And I remembered my mom reading to me Trina Paulus’ Hope for the Flowers when I was small. If you recall, the caterpillar exclaimed with hope,

“We can fly!
We can become butterflies!
There’s nothing at the top
and it doesn’t matter!”
As he heard his own
message he realized how
he had misread the instinct
to get high.
To get to the “top” he
must fly, not climb.

I flew in praise! Praise, that most ‘useless’ of prayers, without a ‘why’ other than to declare Beauty’s endangered appearing. Thank you, O God, for deeming the risk worthwhile, for us and for our salvation.

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colors, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age   — Glory to God for All Things

“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

[I will not post until Saturday. Pax!]

For the world, there is no power of God. The world does not see and does not know the power of God: it laughs at the power of God. But Christians know that the sign of God is powerlessness in the world — the Infant in the manger. — Sergei Bulgakov

On November 27, 2015 while in Nairobi, Kenya, Pope Francis said to a group of youth, “I am going to tell you something private. In my pocket I always carry two things: a rosary to pray. And something which seems odd. This here, this item, is the history of God’s failure. It’s the Way of the Cross. A small Way of the Cross. As Jesus suffered, when they condemned him, right up to when he was buried. With these two things I do the best I can. And thanks to these two things, I never lose hope.”

“Esto es la historia del fracaso de Dios.”

I heard this by chance the other day and said aloud, “What??” Francis is the master of the stark.

The history of God’s failure, of God’s weakness (1 Cor. 1:25), of God’s folly (1 Cor. 1:18). Such a God is a source of hope. By becoming a condemned man, suffering heroic defeat, God made known His radical solidarity with humanity in all things, especially failure (Heb. 4:15). As St. Gregory Nazianzen said, “Christ took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.” So amazing. Our failure, our sin, our weakness, our brokenness, our fragility, because of God’s merciful folly, now becomes the royal road to union with Him. What is despicable in our lives, when handed over to God through repentance and surrender, God raises glorious. Again, Pope Francis reminds us, “Jesus too makes himself weak for us, he becomes bread. There is strength.”

French author, Georges Bernanos, wrote,

How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity—as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.

The sinful woman in Luke 7:47 could have hated herself, after the example of Simon the Pharisee, who despised her. But coming to know herself as lavishly loved by Jesus, she surrendered the paralyzing pride of self-hate and learned to love herself in concert with His love. These are the world’s greatest lovers. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Yes, God wishes us to “be perfect” (Matt. 5:58). But in the Kingdom, perfection is seen through the lens of the folly (mōria) of the Cross. The first one to enter Paradise is the co-crucified kakourgōn, “evil-doer” (Luke 23:40-43). Bound naked to the cross, he recognizes his absurd likeness to Israel’s King and by an act of reckless hope, repents headlong into the Heart of a wrecked God.

“Permit me,” St. Ignatius of Antioch says to the Romans, “to be an imitator of the passion of my God.”

So when things turn hard in life, and show up your (and others’) many weaknesses, hold tight to St Paul’s witness,

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? …

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

— 2 Cor. 11:24-30, 12:8-10



We have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists’

[This was a stream of consciousness journal entry written after my son and I spoke about prayer late into the night]

What the ‘proofs’ prove is, at one and the same time, the existence of God and that, as said of God, we have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists.’ … Reason is rooted in our animality and it opens up into the mystery which lies unutterably beyond it, for it can, out of fidelity to its own native impulse, ask the question which it knows it could not answer, the asking being within its powers, the answering being in principle beyond them — Denys Turner

This quote captures for me a deep taproot of wonder, the sacrament of which is the question. Theology is defined by St. Anselm of Canterbury as “faith seeking understanding,” an understanding of the content of divine revelation entrusted to Israel and fully manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

Let me say a few words about “divine revelation.” The history of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, is the history of an astonished race of nomadic Semites who found themselves beset by an unexpected god, guilty of breaking and entering their world with an utterly new, completely unsought, unspeakably bizarre and thoroughly disorienting revelation. This was a god who violated all usual constraints of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon, including the territorial and celestial borders each god observed. This God of gods seemed to feel free to roam wherever he wished (which is why Jonah fled to the sea in 1:3, thinking himself safe from the land god!) and vanquished all divine competitors (as Ex. 12:12 indicates, the plagues each specifically targeted the most powerful Egyptian gods).

The Exodus effected by this Roaming Conqueror was one theologically disorienting experience for the Hebrews and Egyptians.

Think here of Moses in the Sinai desert happening on the absurd vision of a burning bush that speaks to him and commands him to return to Egypt and confront the god-king, Pharaoh. And then when Moses asks this terrifying and fascinating deity for a name, what does he find out?

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Seriously? I am? Clearly, it is a name that is at once a firm evasion of being named, evading any human claim to manipulative control of a god. This god is uncontrollable, cannot be bribed or manipulated (Deut. 10:17), because he is holy, i.e. wholly other, totally unique, completely singular, sui generis. A capital G God.

Theology is the description of the work of an exploring mind that has had opened within it a radically new capax, a “capacity” for entering into this absurdly new and uncharted field of inquiry; into the God’s real-time, living self-disclosure. And faith is the name theology gives to this remarkable new capacity given to the mind for accessing immediate knowledge of the source-less Source of all existence. In fact, faith opens the mind to immediate contact with God, mind to Mind, moving the believer from mere conceptual knowledge about God to personal knowledge of God. This is what the monk Evagrius meant when he said, “The theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Prayer is the act of faith opening the mind to God, which is another way of saying acquiring the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Jesus is God’s human mind, which is why all prayer leads us into Christ (John 14:6).

When I think of all this, I am with John:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17).

St. John of the Cross argues that the union of the mind with God through faith requires a passage through darkness and death precisely because it involves a finite mind opening up within itself an infinite capacity. In this sense, the “dark night of faith” requires a leap of surrender that gives God permission to lead us from our narrow field of vision into the “vast and silent desert” where He can cease to hide and be fully God-for-us. As Mother Teresa said it, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself: Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive him and keep him as your own.”

Prayer ensures that the theologian’s knowledge is of God; of the outside-the-box, wild and transcendent God who is source-less, beginning-less, origin-less, un-created, un-bounded. God, in an absolute way, transcends our finite experience of existence. While we would say that there is a certain likeness between God and the world He created, which gives theology something to talk about, we also affirm a greater unlikeness gives theology something to be quiet about. This is prayer in its final flowering: to contemplate mystery, to permit God full freedom in us, embarking on love’s endless quest into the inexhaustible self-disclosure of God in Christ.

So, son, if you want to pray be ready for the ride.

And don’t ever forget, all of this raucous mystery finds its sweetest fruit only in the capacity to love like Jesus; especially to love one’s enemy.

Dear God, I give you all, willingly

“Dear God, I give you all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give, I just let them take. The best is to remain quiet. Because though I may not know how to give, you know how to take. Yet I would have wished to be once, just once, magnificently generous to you!” — The Curé d’Ambricourt, referring to his parishioners

Back in 1992, I suffered severe anxiety attacks that landed me in the hospital. I remember one day in particular, after I was released from the hospital and was recuperating at home in Massachusetts, I was experiencing that terrifying sense of total inner fragmentation that accompanies extreme cases of anxiety. The edge of madness. Those who have suffered this know exactly what I am saying. I had been unable to pray for days because I was paralyzed inside, but at a certain point in the day I was able to release some pressure from the inner volcano and melted down in tears. I was finally able to pray in that space of a moment, and distinctly recall saying to God, “If you want me to surrender myself to you, I need a self to surrender! I can give nothing to you now, I have nothing to give, so I ask you: just take this away!” I settled into a peace after a minute or so, and heard a distinct phrase spring to mind with a crisp clarity, “No, take me in.”

I immediately thought, book of Revelation. So I looked up the passage this inner voice had brought to mind. Jesus says in 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” So I invited Him into my storm-battered, wind-swept tent. The winds stilled, the storm calmed. For a time. And though the storms would return again and again, I had received then and there a new insight that remained. A new grace.

He was with me in the storm, the One who, in the Garden of Agony, had suffered a cosmic panic attack in the face of death’s annihilation. He was with me. With me. Such throwaway words. Yet when unshakable Love is with you, you cease to drift haplessly and hopelessly. He was with me as the One who said, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). He who has conquered the storm, who reigns over the panic as Prince of Peace, wished to enter me. And when He entered, this King of Glory, He gathered all the fragments within, praying to His Father for me, “That they may be one as we are one” (John 17:21).

Suddenly, St. Paul’s words in Galatians 2:19-20 made all new sense to me, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

And the words of consecration flashed with new light, “Take, eat my Body; take, drink my Blood.” In the holy Eucharist, I consume Christ, “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Yes, Lord, do not take this away. Come, enter as my guest and make all things new. Amen.

Time in a Bottle

[Written last December, sat in my drafts, sent out today]

Oh, how precious time is! Blessed are those who know how to make good use of it. Oh, if only all could understand how precious time is, undoubtedly everyone would do his best to spend it in a praiseworthy manner! — Padre Pio

I woke up with a start at 3:30 a.m. with the Jim Croce song, Time in a Bottle, playing in my head. It was startling, first of all because I had not thought of the song in years, and second of all because it sounded like it was playing in my ears when I woke up.

The day before I had spent the whole day with my wife, Patti, and all four of our children (at once!), which is very rare these days. We went to a movie, ate out, and later at home told funny family stories and looked at old pictures until after midnight. As the day ended, I was filled with overflowing gratitude for this fleeting taste of what I once took for granted. Before Patti and I went to bed, I pulled up the nuptial blessing that was prayed over us by Bishop Smith on our wedding day and shared this last part with her:

May they be blessed with children,
and prove themselves virtuous parents,
who live to see their children’s children.
And grant that,
reaching at last together the fullness of years
for which they hope,
they may come to the life of the blessed
in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Through Christ our Lord.

I told Patti how sad time’s relentless passage was, and she countered with a Dr. Seuss quote — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I went to sleep struggling to gratefully offer to God, and not rue, the passing of life into memory.

So as I laid awake at 3:30 a.m. recalling the song’s lyrics, it all suddenly made sense why this particular song had come to mind in my sleep. When I was young, I always grieved the passing of happy times and fantasized about time travel so I could return and re-live good times again. I just knew I would appreciate them more next time around! I also used to daydream, when I was in my teens, about singing this song to my future wife. And now this song had come to embrace my children as well, who have come to re-define life’s meaning for me.

I wrote on a piece of paper next to my bed,

God became human to ensure that nothing in time consecrated by love is lost in eternity, and — even more! — allowed His own immutable eternity to be enriched by time, consecrated and taken up into Himself. And He who is love even takes up into Himself the loveless, drowns it in His mercy and raises it with glorious wounds. The God who IS, became. Became all things for us, to seek and save what was lost. John 1:14 touches all of time, touched yesterday.

I fell back asleep and dreamed about walking along a backwoods path in Iowa where the kids and I, back in 2008, would go on a ‘secret adventure’ early every Saturday morning. When I woke up again, I prayed my morning Suscipe and listened to the song…

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me.
To Thee, O Lord, I return it.
All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.
Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go through time with

When words fail into prayer

[repost 2015]

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words. ― Georges Bernanos

After some painful events yesterday, I sat in silence alone. Tears fell, I looked at the crucifix on the wall. No words, no prayers, just silence, tears, aching. I felt I prayed then more than I had in a long while. I recalled on my drive home my eight-day Ignatian silent retreat in 2012. My spiritual director, frighteningly wise, gave me advice on how to allow the silence to create in me a disposition to prayer. I pulled my journal up from that day. Here’s a snippet:

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Fr. John asked me to allow the silence to burn through me, to draw out from me hidden toxins, purge the noise, and re-learn the power of words. Good Lord, not sure I am ready for that. Fascinating point, he said that the real power of words before God is when they shade into inarticulate longing, pining, yearning. These are the grammar, syntax and lexicon of love. Like music without words. Articulate words, he said, we can control, use and manipulate, but longing evades conscious manipulation. God meets us at the source of our longing, which rises like a spring deep within. He mentioned what St. Paul describes in Romans 8:26 as deep prayer, the stenagmois alalētois, ‘inarticulate moaning’ prayer of the Spirit. I also thought of Jesus in Mark 15:37, his last sound was a phōnēn megalēn, a ‘loud scream.’ The Word-made-scream.

I also thought of [my wife] Patti during the first miscarriage. I sat by her side, said no words while she moaned and prayed in pain and sorrow. I felt useless, or maybe helpless and tried to share a comforting thought, but she said very forcefully, without hesitation, ‘Please don’t.’ Weeks later, she expressed her gratitude for my support, saying, ‘I just needed your presence and your hand. Sometimes words trivialize.’ Yes, becoming one flesh through our hands that day seemed to infinitely surpass the oneness of sexual intimacy. I can think of no moments in our marriage more intimate, and more terrible, than those hours. God, her echoes of God’s phōnēn megalēn in the face of death. My hand vibrated from the sound.

I also thought of that ‘last supper’ scene in [the movie] Of Gods and Men, as the monks knew the terrible fate that awaited them. Expressive faces, smiles, tears, no words.