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.

“REJOICE AND BE GLAD!” (Mt 5:12)

pinimg.com

We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.

Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. — Pope Francis, Gaudete et exultate 

I have read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exultate, so many times since its publication I have lost count. Each time back, I always discover a fresh set of insights.

It is the the first time the Magisterium has produced a whole document, written in a very accessible style, on the call to holiness (especially) for the laity whose home is the secular world. Certainly other documents have touched the subject, but there has been no single sustained reflection on the stunning development of Vatican II:

All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness, as such, a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society (LG #40).

The “highest” vocational form of Christian life is not consecrated life or ordained ministry, but the call to holiness. All other measurements of vocational height in Christianity, important as they are, submit to the supremacy of love of God-neighbor, which is the soul and summit of holiness. In assessing the holy “heights” of priest, Levite and Samaritan-layman in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus exalts to the highest summit the one who stooped lowest in mercy.

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. — Matt. 20:26-27

This is the greatness, to me, of Pope Francis’ exhortation. It democratizes holiness, with his characteristic realist, practical and earthy flair. It has the wisdom of a seasoned churchman who knows well the weal and warts of Catholic culture, who has a refined grasp of the principles of discerning God’s will in daily life, who is able to get at the simplicity of faith in the midst of the complexity of life, who loves to draw from diverse sources of wisdom that demonstrate the kaleidoscopic character of catholic Truth, and who locates joy, again and again, as the preeminent sign of spiritual vitality. #32:

Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy.

I must say, with a bit of weariness, in the midst of an ecclesial culture rife with cutting bitterness, caustic cynicism and joyless anger, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. I said in a class I taught on this document in May, “If you want to rightly assess the teaching of Pope Francis, first spend a full year immersed in this document, striving to live its vision out to the limits of your strength, and only then dare to return to his pontificate and critically reflect.”

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Be glad as children

outsidemom.com

St. Teresa of Avila tells the story of a time she was coming down the steps of her convent when she saw a child standing outside. The child spoke to her and said, “Who are you?” Teresa answered, “I am Teresa of Jesus, who are you?” With a smile, the child answered with great energy, “I am Jesus of Teresa!” Of course, she realized in that moment that it was Christ, who promptly vanished.

I just heard this story in a lecture by Fr. Francis Martin, and was blown away by its simple beauty. “Of Jesus,” “of Teresa” is clearly a statement of mutual belonging between two people bound to one another by a covenant of love, as in the language of the Song of Songs 6:3,

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

The fact that Jesus appeared as a child to say this to her is also stunning, as it reminds us that to enter this covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must do so as Jesus adjures in Matthew 18:2-4,

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I was so struck by the child’s smile and energy! In that I see a heart filled with joy, wonder, playful zest, openness, trust, love, humility. 300 years later, St. Teresa’s spiritual daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, would develop a whole spiritual vision of the “little way” around this encounter.

The other week when I was in Iowa, I sat on a bench by a lake and watched a small child excitedly playing with some bugs he had found. His mother was busy on her iPhone for at least 20 minutes, wholly oblivious to the explosive joy erupting in front of her as he would cry out now and again, to no avail, “Mama, look! Mama look!”

At first, this made me feel sad for the child, that the mother would not respond to his attempts to draw her into his tiny world of amazement. But when I saw that this was not diminishing his joy in any way, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Fr. Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov,

Pray to God for gladness. Be glad as children, as the birds of heaven. And let not the sin of men around you confound you in your doings. Fear not that it will wear away your work and hinder its being accomplished. Do not say, ‘Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpless, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done.’ Fly from that dejection, children!

In truth, belonging to Christ, who is the fountain of eternal childhood, steels you against a world grown cold and sad in its loss of the capacity to discover in all moments the unfettered joy of shared wonder over God’s amazing creation.

Even as the world around you gripes and groans, dance! And pray to the God-made-child…

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.” — St. Maximus the Confessor

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. in their hospice, one of the AIDS patients we served once said to one of the Sisters, “Where do you people come from?”

She had been overwhelmed by the new “economy” she experienced at Gift of Peace, which, in her words, “spit in the face of the law of the street — ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.” She said, “All my life, anytime anyone did anything nice for me, they always wanted something back. You didn’t give unless you wanted to take. This is the first place I’ve been where they do something nice, but don’t want something back.”

She was especially amazed that the Sisters and volunteers were able to ignore her initial expressions of bitter ingratitude and anger, and continue to care for her with kindness and patience.

After I heard her observation, I meditated on just how radical the implications of what she said were if that “economy” was lived out in every detail of Christian life. What a strange form of justice would emerge! To this effect, Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-36 are indeed mind-bending:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It seems, then, that Jesus touts mercy as the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mercy, which is love encountering evil, brokenness, sin, death, and overcoming it.

Where might we even start implementing such an impossible demand? Well, by actively letting go of the need to be thanked, acknowledged or praised for the good we do. By working on refining our intention — the why of your action — from “what’s in it for me, on my terms” to “what is for God’s greater glory,” while trusting in the supremacy of God’s manner, in the End, of rewarding good and dealing with evil.

Sounds lofty and glorious in speech, but translating it into everyday actions is an entirely different experience. Brutally hard, as the present economy is infected by the logic of sin.

In service to purifying their intention, St. John of the Cross counseled his fellow Religious to frequently seek out opportunities to do kindnesses to those notorious for ingratitude. Why? Yes, to help purify their intention, shifting the center of gravity from the needy ego to the God-neighbor.

But also it was to imitate God in offering the unworthy and ungrateful an opportunity to discover in us a new way of being human, pattered after God’s economy of salvation. In other words, by imitating God in this way, we offer others the invitation to be saved.

By looking at us, they can say: “Oh, that’s why I would want to be saved! To be like him, like her!”

Or, even better, maybe I could say that by choosing to do good to those who cannot, or will not do good to us in return, we allow ourselves to be saved by the merciful Father.

And being saved means being made capable of loving as God loves, with God’s love, plain and simple.

While we will always find reasonable reasons for not acting in such a way to this or that nasty, ungrateful person, faith challenges us to risk each day a new way of seeing the world, a new way of acting toward others that makes mercy the new normal. The cognitive dissonance this risk  causes should remind us that mercy is indeed as odd a form of justice as a crucified God is an odd manner of wielding divine omnipotence.

The woman at Gift of Peace ended up being baptized. Why? She said, “if your Jesus is anything like these women, I want to know Him.”

Yeah, that.

Mr. Wallace

Mr. Wallace, me. picdn.net

[Re-post from 2017]

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

People who have inspired me in life, as I reflect, all have one characteristic that really stands out: they are encouraging. Meaning, they fill you with courage to be who you were made to be.

When you’re with such people, it’s like you are drawn out of yourself as their interest in you, and what you have to offer, has such power. I find that such people are rare. The world doesn’t fold back in on them, but theirs unfolds out toward you. It’s what you might call magnanimity, “great-souledness.”

As my grandfather loved to say, great men, when you meet them, are those who leave you thinking, not that they are great, but that you are. When you walk away from them, you feel lifted, kindled, determined, resolved to press on, come what may, to employ every ounce of your energy and gifts, never ceasing to dream of a future full of hope — even when the space around you is narrow, or the skies above you are grey and low.

Mr. Wallace, my 7th-9th grade tutor, was such a man. I had flunked all of my 7th grade classes and had to transfer to another school and repeat the grade. Dispirited, despondent, depressed, despairing, humiliated. That was me. We would meet several times a week to review my subjects, especially math and English. His attentiveness, patience, and pedagogical skill all lifted me out of my academic confusion, and gave me confidence to ask questions, to learn.

But more than anything, it was the question he would ask me at the end of every session, “How are you doing?”, that broke open my thick shell. Nuclear, really. At first I remained on the surface with my responses, but eventually I trusted he was serious and began to talk. About anything. And he would listen, nod, wonder, laugh and respond specifically to whatever I said. In other words, I knew he was interested in me and saw in me something I didn’t. In the truest sense he was an educator, ex-ducere, he “drew me out.”

At our last meeting, after three years with him, we talked the whole time about my future. He wanted to know which language I would study, how I would handle a new school, what career I hoped to pursue. He asked me what the most important things were that I had learned with him. I said, “confidence.”

I was very emotional saying goodbye to him, but carried with me in the years ahead the image of his kind face and the sound of his voice. His last words to me are especially vivid. He knew I loved the band Aerosmith, and so for that last session brought in a cassette player and played, “Dream On.” He said, “never stop dreaming. Your future depends on dreams.”

Back in 2010, 28 years later, I searched for and found him. I wrote him a thank you email, and he wrote back, “Tom, I am appreciative for your kindness in making the effort to tell me this. I vaguely remember you. I’m old now. I am happy for your successes and am glad to know I played a small part. Those are the things make the hard times along the way worthwhile.”

Each of us is called, gifted and sent by God to someone. Sent to inspire, encourage, lift up, lend a hand. Awaken a dream. It’s what makes life beautiful.

We Didn’t Start the Fire

[Please excuse this 2nd interruption today. I will still be back ~May 7, but after watching Pope Francis’ May Prayer Intention just now (that made me cry with joy), I just had to re-post this post from February]

+ + +

“The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs..”                                                        — The Second Vatican Council

Last month, I presented a talk on the lay vocation at the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference. My audience was made up of people who work in and for the Church, in ecclesial ministry. Like myself.

I thought I would share here my opening lines from the talk.

The best part of what I am going to share this afternoon with you [church ministers] is that I have great news: You don’t need to do a single thing to kick-start this extraordinary and world-shaking mission of the lay faithful that Vatican II said is ‘where it’s at’ for the ~1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

This mission is already happening, already in motion everywhere, all around you. In fact, that mission is what built this Convention Center we are in, made the clothes you are wearing and the food you ate for lunch, the technology I am using, the vehicles that got you here, the fuel that powered those vehicles, the roads those vehicles drove on … and on and on and on. I could go on and on!

The mission of the laity is civilization building, culture making. What theologian Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh loved to call “doing the world as God would have us do it.” This worldly mission is what Catholics call not ministry, which is focused churchy-inward, but apostolate, which is focused worldly outward. Apostolate means apostle-ing, “being sent.” And for the laity this means being sent out by Jesus into the world to do the world God’s way. The apostolate of the laity is to reveal the sacred in the secular by so-loving the world with God the Redeemer.

Praise God, we church ministers don’t need to start up, create a strategic plan for, incite or organize this mission. Look! It’s already pulsing all around us, now, always and everywhere – burning, raging, pressing forward at every moment of every day. Turning the earth into a cultured Garden, into a City for God and man to dwell in together.This is the perennial human endeavor written into our spiritual DNA.

We ecclesial ministers serve well when we leave these secular laity feeling that theirs is the greatest of missions, and that our ministry exists to serve their mission. We serve well when we allow our best church-energies to spotlight and empower their mission to “do the world” as God intended.

[How did God intend the world to be done? See Christ.]

We ministers exist to enable lay men and women to become secular saints; become co-workers with God, called to join in His mind-blowing work of creating and redeeming this good and broken world one day, one deed, one prayer at a time.

You see, we didn’t start the fire. God set creation afire the moment He fashioned humanity in His image and likeness, entrusting His fire to us.

God set us in the world to become fire-casters, and how He longs to see it burn.

Okay, let me share a song that brilliantly illustrates the irrepressible dynamism of this world-mission. Watch how humanity rages, roars, presses on, for good or for ill, with or without us…

Let’s make it “with us”!

The Church exists as an outpost of God’s Kingdom planted in the world to infuse into culture and civilization the love of God given to us in Jesus. The Church’s very best energies, and the core focus of all her ministries, must be to harness the energies of this secular mission and allow the world to be consecrated to God.

To be “consecrated,” just as in the Mass, simply means bringing every aspect of day to day secular life into harmony with the inner structure of Jesus’ self-offering, “This is my Body given up for you, my Blood shed for you.” A consecrated world, symbolized by bread and wine, has been placed in service to love and offers no resistance to its final consecration on the Altar of the Kingdom.

So laity, let’s roll…

I like to contemplate the holiness present

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. — Pope Francis

Yes, this is it. Descriptions of the truest soul of holiness, charity. Charity, which is the love with which God loved us in Christ. Holiness is when our love synthesizes, harmonizes, mixes, fuses with God’s love, and then overflows our cup into unsung acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holiness is what St. Thérèse manifested when she said, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.” Because ecstasy, from ek histanai, means “to stand out of yourself.” Get out of yourself, over yourself, and into God and your neighbor.

My wife loves to say that for her the premier sign of holiness in others is found in people who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning they don’t have self knowledge, but that when you are with them, things don’t turn back on them but on others. The exude, in a disarmingly natural way, other-centered love. The relationship of such unaware saints with God is wholly consumed with the welfare of others. Like St. Paul: “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” (Romans 9:3). Or like the Lord Himself who, rapt in an ecstatic prayer with His Father in John 17, thinks only of us.

Us.

What a magnificent thing that God’s love, epitomized in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, is not competitive. Rather, God delights most when we make our love for Him all about the people around us. Including our parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, enemies. Especially our enemies. God’s favorite way of being loved is through the enemy, the one we find most disagreeable, irritating, objectionable, repulsive. As God the Father said to St. Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you.

This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.

May we take one step today toward this holiness, which the revolution of love.