Mary the Poor

Conception of the Virgin Mary. Yes, that’s the elderly Sts. Joachim and Anne readying to re-enter the nuptial chamber… lauraclericiicons.webgallerydesign.com

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Last night I gave a talk at a parish on Mary and Baptism. What a honor to have the opportunity to speak of the mysteries of God in her regard.

I was exhausted and ready to go to bed when the time for the talk came, as it had been a non-stop day. Though, to be honest, this is also the general sad state of my life in the “over 50 club,” I have found, as I am now ready for bed by 8:00 p.m.; just as my wife and kids are ready to party. Such a downer.

I mention this detail because it became part of the talk I gave — my exhaustion, that is. Oh, yes, and one other funny detail. My talk was right after Mass, and at the end of Mass I rushed to the cry room to use the restroom. Of course, there was a line. As I stood there waiting, I heard the pastor start introducing me from the ambo, only to then inform the congregation that I was delayed as I was relieving myself.

Mortifying.

I spoke on the Sacrament of Baptism as an immersion into all of the mysteries that the Mother of God embodied in a singular way. Mary is not the great exception, I argued, but the great exemplar of all we are called to be in Christ.

In Baptism we are reborn as an immaculate new creation, washed clean and re-created to be God’s sons and daughters. I tried to hammer home the point that we are “born of God” in, as it were, God’s broken bag of water and blood (John 1:13; 3:3; 1 John 5:6). Our very being is changed as we are adopted into most secret intimacy of God’s inner life. Mary also was conceived as a new creation, reborn in the very act of coming to be.

In Baptism we are made temples of the Trinity, a living Holy of Holies, the abode of God and divine Glory’s point of entry into the world. At the Annunciation, Mary also became a Temple of the Most High God.

In Baptism we are joined to Christ’s Body, made “one flesh” and “one spirit” with Him (1 Cor. 6:17), allowing us, by grace, to share in all He is by nature. At the Annunciation, we might say that Mary cried out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this One shall be called Man, for out of Woman this One was taken” (cf. Gen 2:23).  At the foot of the Cross, she became “one flesh” with Him as He, the New Adam, called Mary “Woman,” the New Eve and mother of all the living in the new creation (John 19:26-27).

In Baptism we are plunged into Christ’s death and resurrection, dying to sin, living for God and being initiated into a divine pattern of self-sacrificial love. At her conception, at the foot of the Cross, and everywhere between, Mary died and rose with her Son. Yes, redeemed by her Son’s death before she existed. Here, we gawk in awe. O Time, swept up into the eternity of God, you are redeemed! Sing for joy!

Something like that. And I used a number of stories to illustrate my points.

Okay, so I gave this talk, but I can tell you it was not as clear as all that. In fact, I really don’t remember much of what I said. As I got into my car, I said a prayer of thanks and offered to God the frustration I felt over my exhaustion and the effect it had on my talk. I sat for a few moments in silence, and suddenly had a powerful phrase come to mind: “My greatest attribute is my poverty.”

I thought, whose poverty? God’s? Mary’s? And then I realized, it’s both. In her womb, Mary knew as no one else the poverty of a self-emptying God precisely because she was already poor. Empty of herself, i.e. sinless. Mary magnified the Lord because she, the lowly handmaiden, was created in the image of the God-Man who, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (1 Cor. 8:9).

It was as if God were saying to me, “Tom, only when you accept your absolute poverty, and join it to mine, can you magnify me, for my power is only made perfect in your weakness.” And then I wrote, “Yes, poverty is God’s supreme attribute because it is the nature of love to keep nothing for itself.”

Well, God, if weakness is what magnifies, my magnifying glass is immense. So please, Lord, feel free…

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son
Both ever-blest while endless ages run. Amen.

Gentle John

[Again, the end of semester work is enormous. I may not be able to post again until it ends next week. Thank you for all who comment here, I read them all gratefully]

The last month or so has been astonishing in the number of people who have confided to me their pains, struggles, fears. I cannot help but repeat again Henry David Thoreau’s oft quoted, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

A priest I know in Lafayette said to me recently, scratch beneath the surface of someone’s soul by listening compassionately for a stretch of time, and you’ll uncover pain.

Yes.

Amid all of these encounters, I had a remarkable experience that gave me a new perspective that is difficult to articulate. I will try.

In late October, I was preparing for a talk I gave in Baton Rouge for a pro-life fundraiser in November. I had been struggling for a few days over how to end the talk. One day, as I sat for a while in my car in silence thinking on this, Bl. John Henry Newman’s poetic prayer, Lead Kindly Light, came to mind. It fit perfectly with my theme. Lead was a prayer he wrote at a very dark point in his life when he felt lost and very much alone. As soon as I got home, I typed it into the end of my talk.

When the day came for me to head to Baton Rouge, I ended work early so I could spend a few hours entering into and inhabiting the world of my talk. I went to the levee by Lake Ponchartrain and read and re-read my talk while listening to the rhythmic waves. As I got to the prayer, I started to sing it aloud with a tune Colleen Nixon taught me. For whatever reason, I found myself in that moment absolutely overcome by a stunning, almost assaulting awareness of the presence of Newman with me. Next to me. Now that is unusual for me.

But here was what was unique about this awareness. It was of Newman’s gentleness, tenderness that I was made aware. His kindliness. I don’t know how to say it well, honestly. I sensed an immense gentleness, a gentleness that accompanies greatness. That accompanies magnanimity. That flows from a man who has suffered greatly, but who has allowed the suffering to make him not hard and callous, but tender and compassionate — because he has loved much. In fact, I can say that I sensed, above all, the love born of suffering.

Interesting to note, this brief experience came just before the month-long procession of suffering humanity neared me, and gave me a certain strength, apprenticing me in his gentle art. Anew, afresh. Deo gratias.

What a beauty that each saint brings with him or her, an entirely unique facet of the Face of God. A grace so specific that it can only be found in that one man, one woman.

Saints of God, intercede for us, befriend us, and generously share with us your grace. Amen.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

No humility, no holiness

St. John Vianney

Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. — Pope Francis

One of my favorite saint stories is about St. John Vianney, Curé of Ars, the 18th century French parish priest and wonder-worker. Evidently, there was a petition to the Bishop that had been generated and signed by local clergy and laity, saying St. John was incompetent, lazy, ineffective, driving people away and unpopular — and so should be removed. It is reported that St. John found out about it and said, “Show me the petition.” After reading it, he signed his name to it, saying, “They’re right.” Then he grabbed his cloak and left the rectory for his daily rounds of visiting sick parishioners.

I mentioned to the seminarians in one of my classes last week that a good health-check on ego is to monitor one’s spontaneous response to criticism or being disliked. Humility is an inner capacity to receive truth with gratitude, precisely because your identity is not rooted in pretense or illusion, but in reality. As Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”

By “being rooted in reality,” I don’t simply mean embracing the brute facts of life. Above all, I mean sinking your tap root deep into the reality of God. Humility that is sunk in Christ sees reality as resting on a shore-less ocean of mercy, so no matter what the truth is of who I am, there is irrepressible joy. When Christ the Merciful is the rock for my anchor, the uncontrollable fluctuations of life are for me still waters of peace. All things become a cause for gratitude, for “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Many years ago, I was friends with a priest who had been accused of sexual misconduct and was removed from ministry. He was exonerated almost ten years after the initial accusation, after enduring a grueling legal process and trial, and was allowed to return to active ministry. He was my spiritual director and confessor for a little over a year, and was without question the most merciful and kind human being I have ever personally known. Confessing to him brought me more personal growth than any other time in my life.

Once, I asked him about his ordeal and if he felt resentful. His response floored me.

I have no resentment. I did not become a priest to achieve my personal goals or gain a reputation. I became a priest to serve Truth. Wherever He is, I want to be there. And if that means being with Him on trial or being tried by Him, that’s where I want to be. Right? Truth is what sets us free.

“Bear one another’s burdens” — Gal. 6:2

“Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.”

Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character. — St. Isaac of Syria

When I was growing up, there was a woman named Muriel Vassett who, along with her husband, was very close to my father and mother. Mrs. Vassett, as we called her, was a second mother — a godmother — to me. She was exceedingly kind, generous, compassionate and passionately in love with Jesus. She taught in a Catholic school and donated her salary to families who could not afford tuition. Yeah, she was that radical.

I could tell a thousand stories about the impact she had on countless people. She died in 1991, and I miss her terribly.

When I was in high school, in part no doubt because of the chaos of my home life and the influence of friends, I rejected with a passion my Catholic faith and its entire moral vision. As I have shared here before, while in college I underwent an absolutely unsought, heart-rending conversion experience that led me in an entirely new direction as my life was, like a lightning strike, seized by Christ.

About four months after my change of life, I went to visit Mrs. Vassett to share with her my newfound faith, knowing she would appreciate it. She had just (miraculously) recovered from a 3 year agonizing decline in health after a series of massive heart attacks. That is a story in itself. After I sat with her and shared my whole story, which made her stream tears, she said, “I have something to tell you.” She said,

When I found out from your mom that you had stopped going to church, heard from your brother the way you were living, I began to pray that God would give me a cross for you to bring you home. I asked the same for several others as well. Soon after, I developed my heart condition. I offered it for you.

I was, and am to this day, unable to say anything remotely adequate in return. I was flushed with a deep sense of humility. And at that moment, what I had previously seen as the unsought grace of my conversion now appeared as sought. By her. She said to me, “Remember that nothing you go through in life is every wasted when you let go and let God use it.”

Every day when I awaken, I try to remember that my whole life is bundled in a debt of gratitude to countless people, mostly unknown, whose God-filled labors and love, prayers and suffering sustain me. And I try to recall that any burdens I bear are, in the mystical matrix of grace, supreme opportunities to lighten the (hidden) burdens of others.

Make of my life, O Lord, an intentional repayment of my infinite debt, in the manner St. Paul counsels in Romans 13:8:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

May I have the courage to spread my cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if I cannot take the fault on myself and accept punishment in their place, I will not destroy their character. Spe salvi.

Providence

Matthias Grünewald, Crucifixion

I had a class with the seminarians yesterday on prayer and divine providence, i.e. how does prayer relate to God’s governance of creation? It was just sublime, the whole conversation. This is one of the only classes I have ever taught where the class itself shades into an experience of prayer for me, and the depth of these men and their hunger for prayer is, I believe, the reason why.

I began class with Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion painting, and said,

The New Testament is unambiguously clear: if you want to know how divine providence works, to know what its pattern is for resolving what’s wrong with the world [pointing to the painting], this is it. If you want to know how God “makes all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28), how God brings our fallen world toward it’s ultimate destiny into the new creation, this is it. In chapter 8 of Romans [8:18-25], Paul extends this paschal mystery to the whole of creation and says that creation itself is groaning and in agony, as it labors in pain to give birth to the new creation.

So any Christian discussion of what saving help we should expect from God in response to our prayers, in the face of life’s vicissitudes, must land on the Cross. Prayer draws us into God’s providence, makes us collaborators. If you jump on board, get ready for a wild ride.

In fact, after class as I prayed in the Chapel for a bit before heading to my next meeting, I realized that in the same chapter 8 of Romans, Paul describes prayer as allowing the Spirit to pray in us with “inexpressible groaning” for God’s will to be accomplished. And for Paul, “God’s will” is revealed perfectly in Christ on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

Inexpressible groaning is what you emit when your pain is so great you can’t speak. It is in those times, above all, when we do not know how to pray. And so Paul says to us: It is precisely from those terrible places that the Spirit turns us Godward, and from those places that creation’s mightiest epiclesis arises: Come Holy Spirit! And wow, He comes with a Fire that transubstantiates the world and makes all things new.

St. John Paul II said this beautifully,

The Holy Spirit comes at the price of Christ’s “departure” … which reaches its culmination in the Passion and Death on Good Friday.

What costly grace.

So the Spirit teaches us to pray by allowing us to share in the prayer of the Son to the Father from within His agony, to share in the “loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7) of the Son of God Himself.

Jesus’ prayer on the Cross arises from the heart of darkness, suffering evil’s full fury, all the while bearing into it trust, light, love, mercy, justice, truth, kindness, gentleness, patience, and every other attribute that evil lacks. This alone is what splits the nucleus of sin and death. Inasmuch as we imitate this manner of praying, we respond to Jesus’ invitation, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:28).

Before I left the Chapel, I jotted down in my journal one final insight:

According to Paul in that sames Romans chapter 8, the Spirit only teaches us one word to pray with: “Abba!” (8:15). And in the Gospels, there’s only one time Jesus is ever said to have used that crazily childlike Aramaic word, Abba, in prayer, in the Garden of Agony: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). My God, what tenderness in the exchange here between Father and Son. The Father listens in silence, and on the third day…

The Spirit teaches us how to pray in the face of evil, so that God can enter it and conquer, with us as co-conquerors.

My point to the class? Teach the suffering how to pray in and out of their suffering. Or even better, teach the suffering how to allow the Spirit to pray within them, to co-groan with them. Crying out in prayer from within the darkest places of life becomes the premier way in which God, Redeemer to the core, is given fullest permission to enter that darkness and speak into it His very first creative words, “let there be light.” Precisely because we, creation’s priests, have answered Him, “let it be done.”

Yesterday, my wife ran into a man we know whose wife, a number of years ago, had a crippling stroke and is now bed ridden. Patti asked him about her, and among other things he said,

After it happened, I cried out to God and asked: Why? Why? Why? I was so lost. But once, in a very quiet moment, I heard Him say to me with such a gentle strong voice: “Don’t ask me why, child. Ask me how. How to bear this Cross. Because her suffering, your suffering, is my Cross. And when you cease to ask me why, but how, it becomes our Cross.” And so now, I ask Him every day, “Today, Lord, how?”

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” — Rom. 12:21

anglocatholicfire.files.wordpress.com

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. — Shakespeare

During these days of trial in the church and the world, when the failures of humanity seem to tower, it is now, above all, that Christians must show to the world “the quality of mercy.”

Mercy is not the absence of justice, it is the fusion of justice and love. Mercy is what love becomes when it meets injustice. Mercy is not soft or weak, but is infinitely more fierce and costly than justice alone. Justice alone condemns and contains, rages and seeks the punishment of the evildoer in order to bring justice the wronged. But justice wed to love for the persecuting, reviling, evildoing, hating, cursing enemy seeks restoration, redemption and remedy for both victimizer and victim.

But mercy is infinitely more extreme than just “seeking” these things.

In Jesus the fusion of love and justice compels Him to embrace the Father’s command to identity with the innocent victim and the guilty victimizer, to bear their burdens that both might be saved. In the Passion He drank our poison to become our antidote. This is what made Him sweat blood and bargain with the Father in the Garden of Agony (Mk. 14:36). This:

For he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

From the Cross, wholly identified with all innocent victims, Jesus pleads for the victimizers:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. — Lk. 23:24

In fact, He identified with evildoers in the most radical sense imaginable:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Cor. 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — Gal. 3:13

St. Paul, having himself become Christ (Gal. 2:20), embraces this same terrible logic of mercy in response to his (Jewish) people’s rejection of the Messiah:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. — Rom 9:3

In a most stunning passage from Pope Benedict, we see this explosive tension between justice and love erupts within God as a war:

God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

We who are in Christ, who have fallen deep into the paschal waters of Baptism, who dare sign ourselves with the Cross, who ingest the Food and Drink born of this war internal to God, must evince, must live out this same ethos of mercy. Seventy times seven times a day.

Whenever we embody this crazed love of our extremist God, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

The world outside of Christ either condemns or canonizes evil, but Christians carry evil — and evildoers — on their backs as a Cross (Lk. 9:23), by every means possible. By prayer and reparative penance, by fasting, by forgiveness, by alms or by charity-drenched fraternal correction. And in a million other merciful ways.

In fact, if we resolve to be tough and fierce in the face of evil as disciples of the Christ, with heroic courage, we must don those most fearsome weapons of the Cross that alone cause hell to shudder in terror. These were the same weapons with which the dead Christ harrowed hell’s infernal abyss. These are the weapons by which martyrs conquer evil.

Are we courageous enough to wield these weapons in these dark times? Let’s dare…

…as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, to clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

God, build this house with me

artsfon.com

I will post again this week, but wanted to post a quick reflection.

I just returned from giving a retreat to men in formation for the permanent diaconate in Alexandria, Louisiana. The men who attended are in the truest sense “salt of the earth,” men who live their faith with a sincerity and earnestness that humbles me to the dust.

One of the men took me aside during the retreat to show me pictures of a house he entirely renovated with his own hands over a two year period of time as a gift to a family member. He was so proud of his work, and I felt deeply moved that he wanted me to know that. But when he shared with me how his faith had informed the way he worked, it leveled me. Among other things, he said,

Every day, I began by asking God to rebuild this house with me. So it would be our project, together. [then he streamed tears] You know, I grew closer to God than I ever have in all my life as we worked together each day for those two years. I never got tired of the work, even if I got physically exhausted. And to know we were doing it for [a family  member], that… [he choked up].

💥

“We.” If I could have done so without being awkward, I would have fallen prostrate and kissed his feet. All of my teaching on the vocation of the laity could simply be a commentary on that five minute conversation.

“We.” I could feel the We present as we spoke.

If the seventy million lay Catholics in the U.S. lived every day that way, America would be great indeed.

What a deacon he will be.