St. Not Saint

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Last weekend I watched the documentary on former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason called, “The Diary of a Saint.” It’s really excellent and hard to watch, as it chronicles his personal and familial battle with the degenerative neurological disease, ALS.

There’s so much in this film to comment on, but I will limit myself to a brief exchange between the film interviewer and Steve’s wife, Michel. And I don’t even know what exactly I want to say, just have an intuition, so here it goes. One shot, no editing returns…

Michel is reflecting on public perceptions of both she and Steve as “heroes” or even “saints.” They both cringe over being defined as “heroes” or “inspirations” and wonder how real people’s perception is of their life situation, or what kind of unrealistic pressure it puts on them to be something they are not. Michel says that one time someone even “congratulated” her on the many benefits derived from her husband’s illness. She said very honestly, “that really fucked with my mind.” What these romanticized perceptions tend to overlook, she added, is the brutality and messiness of their daily existence as a family. “Hero” and “inspiration” may make for good tweets or stirring headlines, but they’re just not always really reality. Pushing enemas in his anus, siphoning phlegm from his throat, sterilizing his feeding tube incision, cleaning feces off of his wheelchair, exhaustion, angry outbursts, despair, a screaming baby. That’s the reality they have to face every day.

Michel says, “I’m never gonna be a saint. I don’t want to be a devil. But I don’t want to be a saint, either. I just want to be a real person.”

A real person. I love that.

We had a priest over our house recently to celebrate Mass, and he referenced this documentary, and very specifically that scene. He quoted Thomas Merton as saying, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He said that sanctity is not simply about the achievement of a lofty, pristine ideal but about the meeting of God and the real in oneself, in others and in the world. That the God of Jesus is a God of the real, of the real cross and the real resurrection. And so Christianity is for real people, for prostitutes and tax collectors and fishermen as well as for zealots and Pharisees and scholars of the law. It’s for naturally magnanimous souls and for naturally pusillanimous souls; for the patient and the hot tempered; for the petty and the selfless; for those in thriving marriages and those in anemic marriages; for those who articulate the faith eloquently and those who produce more spittle than light as they attempt to explain the most basic tenants of faith; for those full of fiery love and those full of icy hate. Christ comes to all, bears toward each man and woman an infinitely passionate, redeeming love that sees beauty alive and beauty awaiting His loud call: “Lazarus, come forth!”

This is why Christianity is hope. For all.

The Incarnation of God means Christ is the God of the real, the God whose love is wholly identical and equally absolute for the lowest and highest, the weakest and the strongest, the most wretched and the most righteous. Christ calls each in their place, where they stand, kneel, sit or lie, and from there says: “Come, follow me.” Real sanctity, which is the will to maximally echo divine love from within the walls of one’s confining reality, is only for those willing to risk becoming their truest God-made self in real-time, real-space, real-life. The God for whom nothing is impossible is also the God of the hopelessly unworthy, confined, imprisoned, hemmed in. There, in that frame, cubicle, machine shop, classroom, prison cell, nursing home room the Spirit paints His masterpiece. Indeed, these “little ones” must be those Jesus refers to when he says, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16). The same ones Dostoyevsky refers to in Crime and Punishment:

Then Christ will say to us, ‘Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!’ And the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why are you welcoming them?’ And he will say, ‘O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.’ And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!

Only these real saints will enter. Matthew 21:31. I want to be in that number.

Angry for God?

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[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]

A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon

In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.

St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,

Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.

Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.

What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.

Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.

God says to Isaiah:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).

Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.

This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.

The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).

What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.

I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:

There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.

He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.

The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”

Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:

Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.

Mother, Hearer of the heart’s cry

nursia.org

At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will ask, How much love did you put into what you did?” ― Mother Teresa

As I have felt deeply moved these last days to write on Mother Teresa, let me end this series with a quote from Pope Francis’ homily at Mother’s canonization, and a song by the British electropop band, Ooberfüse. I believe it captures well the heart of Mother’s magnificent mission to shine light into the darkness and bring charity alive in the Church and in the world.

Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that “the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable”.

She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the “salt” which gave flavour to her work, it was the “light” which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.

Bound to the Destitute

Gethsemane at night. amazonaws.com/

Who wrote this?

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no one to answer–no one to whom I can cling–no, No One–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart–and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Whenever I read this text aloud in classes, workshops or retreats, rarely does anyone guess that this was written by the now canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta, during the many years she endured what has been called her “dark night of faith.” It’s absolutely stunning, and seems to betray the woman of smiles whose bold spirit, profound aphorisms and tireless service to the poorest of the poor captured the world’s attention for decades. When I first read the collection of her private letters, I had to catch my breath. But, having been a student of St. John of the Cross, mystic of the dark night, as well as of St Thérèse of Lisieux, I began to connect the dots. In fact, after reading these words from Mother I immediately searched for a quote from Thérèse I’d come across years before that sounded very much like Mother’s lament.

Thérèse:

I get tired of the darkness all around me. The darkness itself seems to borrow, from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech. I hear its mocking accents: ‘It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country, of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity! All right, go on longing for death! But death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence!’ … For love of you, my God, I will sit at that table of bitterness where poor sinners take their food, and I will not stir from it until you give the sign. I am willing to remain there alone to eat the bread of tears, until it shall please you to bring me to your Kingdom of Light.

That last line was, for me, the key that unlocked the mystery of this darkness both women suffered.

When I served back in 1991 at the Gift of Peace home and hospice for homeless men and women infected with HIV-AIDS, one of the Missionary of Charity Sisters spoke to me of Mother’s vision for their life of vowed poverty. I wrote down her insight that night in my journal:

…Sister told me, “Mother reminds us that we freely vow poverty to share in the poverty of Jesus, who shared in the poverty of the world’s poor whom we serve. Most of these poor live in poverty and despair for reasons beyond their control. Charity commands us to share their lot as much as we can, like Jesus.”

This made me think of a passage in St. Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). I’ve never really thought of this passage as a paradigm for Christian life, how it shapes the way I think about my own life and faith as a call to such radical solidarity. I am a child of my culture, placing autonomy over communion.

Sister also said to me, “We choose to live our life very near to the poorest of the poor, the lonely, the destitute, to lighten their burdens and so they see we are not above them, but with them. This is the Christian way. Not God above us, but God with us. Jesus. Our poverty, Mother says, is a lifelong fast that gathers up food to offer to the hungry and drink to give to the thirsty. Not just material food and drink, but the food of love, companionship, friendship, joy, hope. It is truly heaven — isn’t it? — when none hungers or thirsts, because all share all with all? We must give the poor a taste of heaven, now, like the disciples did in the church of the apostles.”

She was referring to this striking passage in Acts: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).

These Sisters, Missionaries of Charity, are living signs in the church of this apostolic exaltation of the common good; of the vocation of each disciple of Jesus to be a Simon of Cyrene, called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). “You received without paying, give without pay” (Matt. 10:8).

The same logic Sister applied to her evangelical vow of poverty — the logic of divine charity — applies to Mother’s experience of darkness and abandonment. In her vow to serve the poorest of the poor, she bound herself to their terrible lot, leaving to God the implications of that binding. She chose to shoulder the destitution of the poor, and God received her Yes as consent to make of her life a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1ff). This is the “logic of exchange” that burns deep in the heart of Christ’s sacrificial offering on Golgotha. And, so, those of us who, through Baptism, have been bound to the cross of Christ also partake in this marvelous exchange. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

How great is the folly of God who, in Christ, has chosen to overthrow the kingdom of darkness by turning Hell’s dark arts into the very weapons wielded by the Children of Light.

Mother said of herself in one of her letters,

I have begun to love my darkness,
for I believe now that it is a part, a very small part,
of Jesus’ darkness and pain on the earth.
If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of darkness.

Surely she is that. Deo gratias.

Grant me the grace, O Father of the poor, to see in my burdens, bound to your Son’s cross by the eternal Spirit, a mysterious offering that can lighten another’s burden. Such a lovely providence, my God! Only in heaven will I come to know the joy my small offerings brought to others’ lives, as well as the joy others’ offerings have brought into my own. Oh the beauty of your Christ’s Body! May it be so now, dear Father, and into the day of our eternity. Amen.

Beginners, all of us

[re-post from 2015]

I know a priest in his late 70’s who gives retreats to nuns all over the world. He told me once about a retreat he gave at a convent in France, where he met a nun who was in her late 90’s. He said she was a very joyful woman, whose face betrayed her age. She enthusiastically thanked him for the retreat after his last talk. He said to her in reply, “Thank you, Sister, but did you really find the retreat helpful?” She said, “Oh yes, Father, I did.” Then he said to her, “At this point in your life, how would you describe your spiritual state?” She said, “Father, I’m just beginning.”

I told him, “I quit.”

The priest then offered me his fascinating interpretation of her answer. Here’s what I wrote later in my journal:

Tom, that’s the definition of being poor in spirit. She gets her vow of poverty. Man is a beggar who needs to ask God for everything. I thought at once of St. Catherine of Siena’s vision of Christ, who told her: “You are she-who-is-not; whereas I am He-who-is.” In other words, God is the cause of her existence, whereas He is the cause of His own existence. She depends on Him for every nanosecond of existence, He is self-subsistent Being. That blows your mind, doesn’t it?

You can never imagine yourself in the spiritual life to be some adept, or take an elitist stance that places you above others. Humility is the ground of everything. And humility is the most elusive of the virtues, because once you claim it, you’ve lost it. Every day we begin anew, utterly dependent on God for everything. St. Anselm prayed, “O Lord, do not withdraw from me, for if you would, by nightfall, I would be an unbeliever.” It’s said that St. Francis, at the end of his life, said to the friars, “Let us begin again, brothers. For up till now we have done little or nothing.”

When I was a new priest my first pastor, who was a wise old salt, said to me: “Remember, John, this parish belongs to Christ, not to you. So while you are here, make everything you do for the people about Him, for Him. Lead them to Him, bring Him to them, unite them around Him. Don’t build the parish around your personality. Build all to endure. If, when you leave, people think only of you, of your gifts and your greatness, they will always think less of your successor because he’s not you. And because it was, in the end, really all about you. If you think it all depends on you, you’ve failed. Christ can use anything or anyone to do His work, speak through a jackass [Numbers 22:30], so if you build on Christ, no matter what or who follows, the people will find Him. If it’s about you, it will all fall.”

Being poor means being free of burdens that should never be yours. So, Tom, every day begin by letting go of everything, everyone, all your successes and your failures, and return all of them to God. Mother Teresa got this: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” This way, success and failure will hold equal value, as God receives both as a worthy sacrifice and turns them to His good use.

The late Orthodox Bishop Anthony Bloom once wrote, “To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it. The obsession we have in our spiritual lives to possess, to be right, to be better, to turn everything toward ourselves, to manipulate God and others, to demand control over our spiritual progress, over the oscillations of consolation and desolation, or over the speed with which God eradicates our sins. This obsession kills the life of God within us, which demands poverty of spirit.”

St. John of the Cross, referring to God’s action of purifying this impatient need we have to control His work in us, captures this well:

Softened and humbled by spiritual dryness and hardships and by other temptations and trials in which God exercises the soul in the course of this [purifying night], individuals become meek toward God and themselves and also toward their neighbor. As a result they no longer become impatiently angry with themselves and their faults or with their neighbor’s faults. Neither are they displeased or disrespectfully impatient with God for not making them perfect quickly.

Lord, make me poor in spirit so your Kingdom might come in me. Amen.

St. Enemy

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[re-post from March 2016 in honor of today’s Feast. It’s one of my most cherished insights]

On January 25, 2016, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I had one of those insights that, when you get it, makes you suddenly see everything a bit differently. It’s something I’d already in some sense known, but not from this specific angle.

Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. John Behr says that theology is knowledge of God acquired within the “matrix of the Scriptures” illumined by the light that shines from the cross and resurrection of Jesus. As I was praying that morning, immersed in the Mass readings for the day (especially Acts 22:3-16), my mind blazed with the light of epiphany as I inhabited Saul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s not critical exegesis as much as it is a spiritual read of the texts. Here’s the journal entry:

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The first Scripture of the New Testament was written at the command of Pontius Pilate and preserved in all four Gospels: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” And Pilate is the inspired author: “What I have written [gegrapha] I have written [gegrapha]” (John 19:22).

Let me pause writing for a prostration.

The enthronement of the King of Truth on Golgotha was first inscribed in mock of God’s royal Son. Divine revelation chose to use for its “writing tablet” the wood of the Cross, with a parchment declaring God as guilty of treason for usurping Caesar’s lordship over the world. The declaration of Christ’s kingship is at once the rationale for having executed God: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” And it was written in the sacred language of Hebrew and secular language of Greek/Latin, to Jew and Gentile. The first Scripture of the New Covenant is as universal as the covenant itself. It’s Scripture: “What I have written,” sharing the same root word as Scripture, graphḗ – as in Matthew 4:10,  “for it is written [gegraptai].” 

My God, the first Scripture of the new covenant was written at the command of a Gentile and an enemy. In this sense, inscribed into the heart of the Gospel is the new commandment on steroids: “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).  Sacred Writ is inscribed on the cursed Cross that tears down all dividing walls and reconciles all things by the bloodshed of the Beloved Son (Col. 1:20). No wonder the chief priests objected: “Do not write [graphe], ‘The King of the Jews’…” (John 19:21). Our God could never be such a King! Yet, He is.

Again, amazed. In this new covenant a strange divine economy unfolds, as men who cherish expediency, intending an innocent death to achieve their goals, unwittingly unveil the most profound mystery of God’s providence: His unfathomable mercy (John 11:49-51; Gen. 50:20). Like the Centurion who thrust his spear into the Heart of God in order to ensure His death, human malice only serves to provoke divine love to super-abound and unseals the fountain of life for all creation.  

This is the heart of the mystery of mercy.

My God.

How equally marvelous that Jesus would chose Saul, an enemy of the Way (Acts 9:4), to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy to the nations (cf 1 Tim. 1:16) and serve as the ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20) whose core mission is to tear down the walls of hostility that stood between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:14).

How wonderful that God chose a blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13) to serve as a vessel of biblical inspiration for nearly half the New Testament, and a murderer (Acts 9:1) to proclaim the Gospel of life.

St. Paul’s revolutionary encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus seared in his mind the merciful mind of Christ, who loves His enemies unto self-abasement (cf Phil. 2:5-11). The mind of the Word-made-flesh, who reserved His sweetest display of love for those who spat in His face and brutalized His body (Luke 23:24; Rom. 12:20-21; Gal 3:13).

“Such is our God, our God for ever and always” (Psalm 48:14).

All this to say that St. Paul was equipped in a singular way to proclaim the “word of the Cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). In fact, the Cross emboldened him to articulate the most radical expression of selfless love found anywhere in Scripture. These words still make me shudder whenever I read them.  Speaking of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus, as he once had, he said:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race (Romans 9:3).

Read that one more time: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.”

May Christ make me always gratefully aware that I also am, by His mercy, also an enemy-made-friend (Romans 5:10). O Lord, fill me with the courage to live daily out of the riches of that same mercy toward my most difficult neighbors. Amen.

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28

Night more lovely than the dawn

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“Perhaps you believe that if a certain enemy who persecutes you disappeared, you would find peace and finally be able to pray. But God uses just this person to deepen your peace, so it is no longer dependent on external circumstances, but finds its foundation in God.”
― Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen

When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross (in 2007), I stayed at a friend’s beach shack. Alone. I was awake all night one night reading John’s Dark Night. I finished it just before dawn, and there was a violent thunderstorm. It was transcendent. Before going to sleep, I wrote a brief meditation. Here’s an excerpt:

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Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved! — St John of the Cross

The dark night wrests control out of our clenched fists, calling us to surrender to Him. I carry with me a thousand “security” tethers — from thick ropes to fragile threads — that keep me safely in control, at liberty to constrain God’s freedom within me. For John, contemplation is when we finally abandon control of our prayer and embrace whatever He wishes to do. I realize to abandon is consent, a fiat to Fire, a Yes to the God who takes no bribes.

He’s so interior to me. He knows the slightest movement of my heart, is more interior to me than the very act of existence, as He gives me existence at every nanosecond. It’s unnerving, especially in this vast ocean of silence [I had no TV, radio, Internet, iPhone]. In silence you feel your addictions screaming for a fix.

Within and without, I am beset by trials and hardships, irritations and inconveniences, cravings and compulsions, worries and fears, disappointments and distractions, dryness and blah blah blah. I am consumed with myself. This “buzzing, blooming noise” keeps me from attentiveness to the here, from mindfulness of the now, from worthy ingestion of the Sacrament of the present moment. There God tears the veil, runs wildly about, seeks out slaves to free. To consume that Sacrament is to ingest eternal love. Only here, only now, God is about the business of His jubilee, shattering chains, severing the threads and slashing the ropes, so I might be free…

…to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.
To share my bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into my house;
when I see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide myself from my own kin. (cf Isaiah 58:6-7)

In other words, I want to be free to receive love so to be free to love. My spiritual director said to me the last time I spoke with him before his death: “I have a secret. I want to die poor. Go to God empty handed. I asked God for this in Assisi after I was ordained. Not because I’ll have nothing to offer Him, but because the only worthy return is spending what I was given.” Dispossessed by love. “And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him” (Matt. 8:14-15).

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

In the dark night of surrender I am liberated to liberate, loved to love, forgiven to forgive, fed to feed, blessed to bless, filled to empty, enlightened to illumine, enriched to enrich, die to become life-giving.

Really to make that total surrender, we need the freedom of poverty, and we must experience the joy of poverty, that freedom, that having nothing in possessing. It is extraordinary how God uses us when we have nothing and how He penetrates the souls of people when He draws them to Himself when they have nothing. — Mother Teresa

Yet I am so far, O Lord. Caught up, bound up. Clinging, clenching. Sing in me a new song of Freedom. Amen.