Homely Holiness

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. — St. John Paul II

I met him first in 1998. He has large calloused hands, dirty fingernails and speaks with a southern twang. He’s been fixing cars since he was a kid, under his dad’s tutelage. He works days, nights and weekends to keep his small business open, and the enormous commitment has cost him a lot in life. Not all good, he admits. But, he once said, “it put food on the family table and a roof over our heads,” as he points to the photographs of his sons and wife pinned to the cork board behind the cash register. He runs an honest business, and you know when you bring your car to him for repair you’ll get all the information you need to decide what’s best for your budget. He’d give you the shirt off his back, remembers everyone’s name, treats his customers like family. He loves to ask me questions about Catholicism whenever I come by, tells me about his struggle to “remember God during the day.” On the wall in the garage is a framed quote: “We abide by the Golden Rule here.”

I met her first in 1995. For about ten years before we met, she had worked for the Catholic Church in a full time ministry that focused on coordinating among several parishes an organized outreach to nursing homes and to the home bound. Her goal, she said, was to make certain the elderly who were without the personal touch of family or friends would have someone to love and advocate for them, and who would allow them to find nourishment for their faith. She finally retired about six years ago, though she continues to serve on a voluntary basis. She always felt a special calling to accompany the elderly who were dying. This, she believed, was her “call within a call” — to be a presence of compassion for people at the end of life. She has shared with me, over the years we have known each other, dozens of stories recounting the ways Jesus has used her to work deathbed miracles of healing, forgiveness, family reconciliation and acceptance of death.

Both have confided to me their inner demons, and both have variously confessed these demons have been their greatest life teachers. As my dad loved to say, “No one can be saved without humility. But you have two choices: Practice it willingly, or God will strip everything from you and teach you. Though most usually take the second, I highly recommend the first.”

I live very far away from both these people now, but, by coincidence, spoke with each of them over the last two weeks. Two very different people from very different backgrounds, but the effect they each have on me is always the same. They leave me lifted, hopeful, filled with a renewed desire to be a better man. I feel more human. As a member of my wife’s choir puts it, “they ooze goodness.” Not Pollyanna goodness, but goodness wrought amid the thorns and thistles of life. People like them, to me, stand among the hidden “pillars of the world” whose greatness is in being unsung, quiet, sans the glitter of memorial plaques and applause. Homely is the holiness I personally find most compelling.

There are so many of these I have come to know. I try to touch the hems of their garments when I am with them.

My wife has long said to me that the people she is most inspired by in life are those who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning people who lack self-knowledge or a strong sense of self or who evince a spiritual low self-esteem. Rather these, she says, are self-less, less self, who very naturally shift the center of gravity to others. In the words of St. Paul, those who “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but humbly count others more important than [themselves]” (Philippians 2:3).

St. John of the Cross and Mr Rogers

Happy feast of St. John of the Cross, that saint of the luminous night.

At the core of St. John’s teaching is that God — especially by our prayerful consent in daily silence — mercifully comes into our distracted, neurotic, insecure, addiction-ridden, ego-driven lives and gradually dismantles — purges — the tangled mess of our compulsive narcissism in order to free us and make us ever-more capable of receiving divine love.

God does this heart and brain surgery, St. John says, both by means of infused mystical grace and through the painful grinding and sifting of graces embedded in our daily responses to all that life throws at us. Our grace-drenched choices to live in love in the midst of an always imperfect world forges us into the image and likeness of Jesus Crucified. This is what St. John is getting at in this my favorite quote from him:

…engrave this truth on your heart … you have not come to the monastery [or marriage, priesthood, a parish, a job, etc.] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building.

Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.

You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter the religious life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering the religious state, you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

What power there is in the conviction that the primary discernment of God’s will in our lives is not whether we should take this or that path (e.g. a state in life or career). Rather, the primary discernment is, how am I to best submit myself to the Master’s chiseling Hand in every moment, wherever and with whomever I find myself.

In other words, the universal and founding vocation is the vocation to Christ-love, all-ways. The rest is commentary.

St. John contends that only when we are capable of receiving divine love from the lowliest, roughest and most hidden of places are we truly empowered to give love in those places. And the capacity to love in the lowliest, roughest and most hidden of places is the end game of salvation. St. John:

A la tarde te examinarán en el amor; aprende a amar como Dios quiere ser amado y deja tu condición, “When evening comes, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.”

As I was watching an interview of Mr. Rogers late last night, I was deeply moved by his description of his own life disciplines that reveal to me the secret of his extraordinary loving character. I have it queued here to the place in the interview, and this segment lasts just over 5 minutes.

A Hidden Life

Again, I would like to strongly encourage you to see the movie about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter that comes out in theaters this weekend and next weekend. It is very intense, but very powerful.

My wife and I saw it at a film festival already, but I will refrain from commenting on specifics to avoid any spoilers. But I will say that, if I could choose a tagline for the movie, it would be that of St. John Paul II: “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.”


So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” — Genesis 18:12

In honor of today’s solemn feast of the Virgin Mary’s sinless conception, I will simply honor the beauty of the sexual act of marital union her elderly parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna, engaged in to bring about that blessed conception. To not reflect on and honor — or even mention — the beauty of that human and conjugal act in honoring a conception is unthinkable. And, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker said,

What does it matter? Well, it matters because marriage is blessed and the marriage union is sacred. If God uses this most natural and basic human action – sexual intercourse – to fulfill his work in the world, then all marriage is sacred and the marriage bed is not to be defiled.

In the Christian East, allusion to this sexual act is the image that captures the mystery of Our Lady’s holy conception best. The Russian icon I include below, from the 16th century, shows, as Orthodox priest Fr. Joseph Gleason says, “saints Joachim and Anna near their bed, preparing to conceive the Blessed Virgin Mary. These saints had sex with each other, and there is no hint of shame. It was a pure, holy, and blessed event.”

An Eschatology of the Secular

The laity’s unique vocation to consecrate the temporal order to God is senseless jabber if that same temporal order has no place in the age to come. — Jordan Haddad

A dear friend of mine, the A.B.D. theologian Jordan Haddad, has written a masterful article on something very near and dear to my heart: the lay vocation to consecrate the world itself to God unto a new creation.

I am convinced that the new evangelization awaits the full development of this vision for a “mundane mysticism” proper to the secular laity to finally emerge. This vision has the capacity to spiritually nourish lay “secular geniuses” who need not feel compelled to become ‘church mice’ or resemble world-renouncing monks in order to become radical saints in and for the world.

Thank you, Jordan, for this immense contribution and all future theological work you will do.


You have so many defects

“If you have so many defects, why are you surprised to find defects in others?” ― St. Josemaría Escrivá

My grandfather once wrote me in a letter titled, “What is a Great Man?”,

…Great men never gossip to harm another’s name and reputation. You may speak about someone in their absence, but only if you are prepared to tell them to their face the same. Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t like, and then happily pass it along. Just be aware that anyone worthy of respect will immediately lose respect for you when you gossip to them…

Why do we find such relish in passing on news of another’s failure, malice, idiocy? Is it because it makes us feel superior, distracts attention from our issues, feeds our envy or soothes our own insecurities? Or maybe it creates a sense of belonging with others because we seem to share a common loathing of some person or group? I have always found that the best litmus test for how out of touch I am with my own crap is how freely I engage in gossip about others’ crap.

Jesus directly confronted this deep-seated human tendency in the Sermon on the Mount, and prescribed the remedy:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Know thyself! Self-knowledge, explored under the light of divine grace, has unlimited potential to make us humble, compassionate and patient with others’ faults and failings. I am riddled with faults and failings, sins and vices, and when I find myself dealt with mercifully by the God who forgives and forgets, and does not gossip about me behind my back, I beg Him for the chance to practice the same toward the most irritating or offensive person I can find.

For people of faith, the premier path to such self-knowledge is prayerful reflection on one’s own life and actions in the light of the commandments, and in the light of Christ and His teaching. Christ alone reveals to us who we were made to be and does not simply canonize our mediocrity. And if you ask Him in prayer to be honest with you about you as you examine/examen your life? Well, let’s just say He loves answering that prayer.

But another indispensable path to self-knowledge is an honest and trustworthy friend, parent, sibling, spouse, mentor, confidante with whom you can be brutally honest about yourself, and to whom you grant full permission to be brutally honest right back atcha. By my lonesome, I have an unlimited capacity for self-deception and rationalization, and an even better knack for finding people who will aid and abet me in realizing this delusive capacity.

Praying the litany of humility is good, if dangerous, but even better is allowing flesh-and-blood others to lead me to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth that is real humility.

How often do you say to a trusted other, “Be totally honest, what do I need to be aware of, work on, deal with, face?” And then listen non-defensively and act proactively? When you do, please pray for that honest person whom you so desperately need, and thank God for them. And then pay it forward, with love, confidence and courage. The world will be better for it.

Joseph the Silent laborer


[re-post from 2016. Sorry I can’t write new ones. Soon!]

I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifices to all ecstasies. — Saint Thérèse

It’s St. Joseph the Worker’s Feast today. Joseph the Silent laborer, who is loathe to draw attention to himself. Joseph is all about FAMILY, forget about me I love you.

In our culture that cultivates and celebrates attention starved people, desperate to be liked, noticed, applauded, affirmed, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the hidden happiness of a self-forgetful life of quiet and unsung work done for God’s honor and others’ welfare.

There’s a priest in Louisiana my wife and I know who, to me, embodies Joseph’s homely holiness. Even as he’s quirky and sometimes cantankerous, he’s tireless, generous, dedicated to lifting up and not bringing down. And he’s all about things not being about him, but so naturally, never awkwardly. He makes my wife’s cool description of humility real, “Humility is being sufficiently unaware of yourself to be able to listen to others.”

He also embodies a favorite saying by my grandfather (in one of its many declensions), “The sign of a great man is not that you leave his presence thinking much of him, but better of yourself.” Like the Providence of God, greatness prefers anonymous, all-about-others do-gooding.

Once when I told this priest how much I appreciated his ready warm greeting, he shared Mother Teresa’s “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” He added, “Most people carry heavy burdens. Life’s about lightening burdens, not adding them.”

When I first came across an article by Dennis Prager on “doing justice” in the Jewish Talmud, I immediately made a copy for him, underlining these words:

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

In the margin, I wrote: “That’s you, Father.”