The One who answers the cry

[Jesus said,] because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you (John 16:6-7).

The sense of divine absence, of God being silent, inactive, distant, opaque as we face the trials that life brings our way … Any person of faith who has journeyed long enough has felt this. How do you face it? How do you pray in it? I think of St. Augustine’s musing on this:

Who would choose troubles and hardships? You command us to endure them, but not to love them. No-one loves what he has to endure, even if he loves the endurance, for although he may rejoice in his power to endure, he would prefer to have nothing that demands endurance. In adverse circumstances I long for prosperity, and in times of prosperity I dread adversity. What middle ground is there, between these two, where human life might be free from trial? Woe betide worldly prosperity, and woe again, from fear of disaster and evanescent joy! But woe, woe, and woe again upon worldly adversity, from envy of better fortune, the hardship of adversity itself, and the fear that endurance may falter. Is not human life on earth a time of testing without respite?

On your exceedingly great mercy, and on that alone, rests all my hope.

During the two years I spent reading endless commentaries on St John of the Cross’ writings for my dissertation, I wrote this line: “We very naturally long for the awareness of God’s presence, for a sense of inner fullness, and so desire to be filled with divine light always. Yet, faith is no such thing. St. John is quite unambiguous that, in this life, it is God’s felt absence, faith’s entry into the divine darkness that is the greater form of encounter with His presence. This insight from John floored me today: Absence is God’s presence under the form of yearning. For John, it is hunger and thirst, panting and yearning alone that stretch our capacity to receive the One who ever-exceeds our capacity and calls us into the deeper.”

Again, I think of Augustine:

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Then I thought: During the Mass, the moment when the priest begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine to transform them into the Risen Christ is called the epiclesis, which in Greek means “to cry out to.” Not to ask calmly, dispassionately, as if for some nice addition to life. No! To recognize what we seek is required for life itself, for any and all good things.

Epiclesis! Such a priestly prayer, which is for all of us to pray always in the “liturgy of life,” to me resembles hungry baby birds in the nest begging, stretching, pleading, clamoring desperately when the parent comes with food. Not because they don’t believe the parent wishes to feed them, but because they believe she does. But there’s more here. It was Jean Vanier who, years ago, made for me the astonishing link between this Greek word for the human cry to God (epiclesisand the Greek word Jesus uses to name the coming-Spirit, the Paraclete. Both words contain the verb kalein, “to call/cry out.” As Vanier says,

The cry for communion in the poor and the broken makes us touch our own inner pain. We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us, which have gradually been formed during our childhood to save us from inner pain. These barriers prevent us from being present to others, in communion with others; they incite us to compete and to dominate others. It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God. And then we meet the “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send us. The word “paracleta” means “the one who answers the cry.”

The Paraclete, then, is the presence of God under the form of epiclesis, crying out, yearning. My God!

In the Mass, the Paraclete comes and transubstantiates a bit of food and drink into the New Creation, which is itself the answer to every human cry for justice, mercy, peace, love, life… It is this form of Presence, effected by the meeting of cry-and-Answer, that we call Real in the Holy Eucharist, the Medicine of Immortality given to us by our crucified and risen God-with-us. He, the One who cried out from the Cross, is the One who, in the words of St. Maximus, “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.”

And those of us who dare to consume this Food and Drink, receiving the Answer, consent to become “one who answers the cry.”

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. — Matt. 25:35-36

Baptism is the source of being

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[Pardon the length, and the fact that so much of my work of late has become a variation on one theme. But is has captured my soul!]

Incorporation into Christ through faith and Baptism is the source of being a Christian in the mystery of the Church. In Christ who died and rose from the dead, the baptized become a “new creation”, washed clean from sin and brought to life through grace. — St. John Paul II

The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God. ― Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar

Someone said to me the other evening that because he was not able to go to daily Mass that day  — he had some especially intense family and work commitments — he felt “spiritually empty and sad.” When I asked him why he said, “Because I didn’t get my daily dose of grace.”

Now, I am a huge proponent and practitioner of daily Mass and am convinced it offers immense benefits for one’s life. And I wish more people struggled with his issue! But…

I think that sometimes Catholics can “externalize” the sources of grace God has entrusted to us and imagine that the sacramental life is more like getting a “fill” at the gas station and less like the progressive unsealing of the fountain of life that upwells deep within.

When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I made hundreds of pages of notes on everything I read. I would like to share a particular entry relevant to this gentleman’s spiritual struggle. When I wrote this entry in 2006, I had just read an article on the striking absence in St. John’s works of any significant mention of the role of the Eucharist in the mystical life. I wrote [slightly edited with new insights]:

In the context of the Council of Trent’s massive emphasis on the role of the Sacraments and Holy Mass in Christian piety, John’s near silence is really striking. Certainly different from Teresa. But it is very much in keeping with strands of medieval mystical traditions. What’s clear is that John is eminently interested in the cultivation of what has already been received in Baptism, and Baptism’s seal, Confirmation. John’s whole vision is built on this premise: because of Baptism, the Kingdom of God is within awaiting our permission to wage ‘bellum caritate’ [the battle of love] and render us conquered and capable of divine love. For John, the life of grace inaugurated in Baptism incites God’s revolution.

Baptism is the key salvation event when the Sower planted in my soul a seed of divine life, poised to germinate and grow into a massive “Tree of Life” that fills heaven and earth with its healing leaves and life-giving fruit. Baptism opened up in my soul a fountain of living water, welling up with the eternally proceeding Spirit. Baptism renovated my body into a Temple of the Trinity — St. Paul says my body is a naos, the Holy of Holies (1 Cor. 6:19; Gal. 2:20!). Baptism knitted me to all of the baptized as a single Body in which the divine Glory has chosen to abide forever. Baptism infused into my soul the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity that make finite-me “capable of God.” Baptism gave me a share in Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the end-game being the conquest of sin and death in me. Baptism gave me re-birth, making me a child of God whose vantage and privileges are those of the Son of God. Baptism marked me indelibly with Christ’s priesthood, empowering me to co-offer my body with His to the Father, on behalf of all and for all. Baptism empowered me to love others with the very love of the crucified God Himself. Baptism made of me a new creation, an outpost of the coming Kingdom established behind enemy lines, to commence the making new of all things with the newness of the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

These are simply a few of the effects of Baptism. All of this I bear  within me, when I run in the way of His commands.

« Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God » – St. Leo the Great

Take my breath away.

All other Sacraments flow from, perfect and flow back to Baptism. It is the primal Sacrament that makes of each Christian a microcosm and mediator, revealing our interior life to be the goal of the journey. My heart is the nexus of matter and spirit. In each of us the whole of creation is redeemed, if we permit it to be. Fiat lux, fiat mihi. Even the Holy Eucharist, the consummation, source and summit of Christian life, has as its telos, its goal my interior life: “Take, eat; take, drink.” Proclamation is toward hearing, consecration is ordered toward consumption, Eucharistic ingestion toward interiority. At Mass, even my sacrificial Oblation, with the heart’s upward turn (sursum corda!), offers Heaven the fuelwood I have gathered from Earth within my heart. When we receive the Eucharist, we consume Fire, and when we exit Church — Ite, missa est! — we are to exhale the Fire within.

The whole mystery of the divine economy is already fully present within us, awaiting our Yes to receive and expend its riches on the world.

It wasn’t lost on John that his experience of “transforming union” with Jesus during the brutal nine months he spent in prison took place while he was deprived of the Sacraments, as he lived under an ex-communication imposed by his own religious Order. Unable to celebrate or attend Mass, receive sacramental Confession. All he had was the Fire within, kindled by Baptism. In him was the City of God, “whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9). John allowed the massive mystery of Baptismal grace to unleash the Refiner’s Fire, removing all in him that prevented a union in love with Christ.

Holy Orders exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within the faithful the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism. Holy Matrimony exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within a man and woman the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism, so they might, with Fires entwined, co-consecrate the world to God and lead it in its journey back to the Marriage Feast of Eden.

In the first centuries of Christianity, daily Mass only very slowly evolved as a practice — largely in monastic contexts. Sunday was understood to be the central Eucharistic event of the week. The six other days of prayers-works-joys-sufferings in the world were for gathering the material (bread, wine, alms) for the Holy Sacrifice on the Eighth Day.

So if you cannot make daily Mass because you are attending to the vocational demands of life (that flow from Baptism), remember you are far from empty. My God. Within you rages the everlasting Flame, the entire mystery of heaven and earth, of grace and nature, of God and man. Be attentive and give thanks that such exalted celestial Treasures have been emptied into such lowly earthen vessels.

Let me (again) conclude with Audrey Assad’s wonderful allegory of the journey of Christian life. Beginning with Baptism (in which we acquire the divine Fire and are wedded to Christ), the Bride, dressed in her white baptismal gown, walks with fierce intent toward the Kingdom through the trials and temptations that threaten to distract her from the ultimate End. Having reached the end of the journey in death, the faithful Christian, entering the spacious Land of Promise, in a final act of oblation casts the divine Fire on the all the material she has gathered throughout her life and offers it up into the new creation (1 Cor. 3:12-16!).

Parents and Godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. She is to walk always as a child of the light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in in her heart. When the Lord comes, may she go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. – Rite of Baptism for Children, §100

When American poet Robert Frost was in his 60’s and was asked to reflect on his life, he responded:

I am no longer concerned with good and evil. What concerns me is whether my offering will be acceptable.

“A (lay) Woman clothed with the sun” — Revelation 12:1

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Willing to set up an image of all goodness and beauty and to make clearly manifest His own, in her, to both angels and men, God fashioned a being supremely good and beautiful, uniting in her all good, seen and unseen, which when He made the world He distributed to each thing and thereby adorned all. Or rather one might say, He showed her forth as a universal mixing bowl of all divine, angelic and human things good and beautiful and the supreme beauty which embellished both worlds. By her rising now from the tomb, she is taken from the earth and attains to Heaven and this also she surpasses, uniting those on high with those below, and encompassing all with the wondrous deed wrought in her. — St. Gregory Palamas

Today the Church celebrates the “summer Pascha,” the August Easter, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven. This is a day of great joy for us, as it celebrates the fulfillment of all human longing in immortal glory. If we grasp this point, and believe that in Holy Mass God smashes the glassy pane of time to reach us, our language of “holy day of obligation” to describe our motive for Mass attendance transitions from blind obedience to joyful duty. The Obliged blurt out, “How can I keep from singing?”

I must interject…

All that we say of the Virgin Mary we say of the Church, since she is the God-etched icon of the Church in all her perfection. Though Mary was given an absolutely singular vocation to give flesh to God, we the baptized are given a share in all that she was and is. She is spes nostra, “our hope.”

So much to say! Let me share a few scattered musings I wrote in my journal over the weekend praying on this Feast Day. These thoughts reiterate my core theological interests that I have shared here again and again.

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The Virgin Mary, who is the highest honor of our race, is a laywoman. She embodies the fullness of the baptismal vocation and mission given to the lay faithful. She was a daughter of Israel, a small town girl, a wife, a mother, a teacher and disciple of her Son.

Her identity is wholly defined by her baptism, though her baptism was utterly unique. Her immaculate conception in the womb of St. Anne was a proto- and prevenient baptism, which not only preserved her from sin but regenerated her as the New Eve. In this baptized conception, Mary was saved by the death and resurrection of her Son not yet conceived in her womb. Think on that for a moment. God, who created time, revealed in Christ the capacity of time to accommodate itself to God’s eternal saving plan in which Christ is its Alpha and Omega. As the Catechism says:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (#491).

Mary was redeemed by God her Savior in a way unlike the rest of us. She was saved to the roots of her being (sanatio in radice), freed from every effect of sin, so she could give birth to the all-holy God with full freedom and be a sign of hope to humanity that radical redemption is our calling and destiny. Like her Son (Heb. 4:15), she suffered the buffets of sin, while preserving her innocence, even sharing in Christ’s death mystically at the foot of the Cross and physically at the end of her life, before being raised into bodily glory.

As with us, her baptism conferred on her a share in the offices of priest, prophet and queen.

As priest, she consecrated the world to God by her soulful ‘Yes’ that permitted God to enter and penetrate into the heart of creation to consecrate the world to God (John 17:19). In her, the Father united all things to Himself through His and her Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The devotional tradition of consecrating oneself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is a magnificent means of joining our baptismal priesthood to hers, and sharing in her prototypical ‘Yes’ to God. The world, which emerges as freshly created at every new moment in history, awaits our yeses in order to share in the supreme act of consecration one-for-all effected by Jesus in Mary. Each Yes we pronounce allows the coming of our rescuing-God, who longs to make all things new. Like her Son (Heb. 7:25), Mary spends her heaven doing good on earth by ceaselessly interceding for our pilgrim Church marching through this valley of tears.

As prophet, she proclaims and enfleshes the Word of God by her life. Simply by who she is, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and magnifies God her Savior. She alone bears the Word of God in its totality, and so she “who pondered these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19) is the absolute summation and embodiment of the living Tradition. Therefore, she alone is fully catholic, possessing a universal vocation of prophetic witness to all humanity, showing us what it means to be wholly defined by the eternal Word of the Father. As Ark of the New Covenant, she bears within herself “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which is also the vocation of the entire Church. Because Mary is a fully catholic human person, she is our universal Mother.

As queen, she has been commissioned to cooperate with Christ the King in His redemptive governance of all creation, leading all into the new creation. She bears the whole Church’s Christ-given mission to wage “paschal combat” against the powers of darkness. She whose “let it be done” echoed God’s “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3; Luke 1:38), who is Queen of Light, has been given authority over the Prince of Darkness, crushing him with her beautiful feet that still hasten to carry the Gospel of God, Jesus Christ, to all she is sent to greet (Gen. 3:15; Is. 52:7; Luke 1:39-45).

I remember in my Mariology (theology of Mary) class in grad school my professor said, after discussing the “singular privileges” of Mary,

In Judaism, the idea of being chosen does not mean being “special” or “better than” the un-chosen, but it means to be invited to shoulder a mission for the rest of humanity. The gift of being chosen by God always means to be chosen to serve as God’s instrument to the rest, and ‘To whom much is given much will be expected’ (Luke 12:48). Every one of Mary’s singular privileges — Immaculate Conception, Mother of God, Assumption — empower her to Mother each of you, in union with Christ, our Father-forever (Isaiah 9:5), in becoming worthy sons and daughters of God. And as we see New Eve, New Adam becoming such on Golgotha (John 19:26-27), we also remember that all privileges require great sacrifice. This is lex caritas, “the law of love.”

In her assumed, risen and glorified body, Mary gives witness not only to our future bodily resurrection, but also to the hope of the entire material world of being lifted up by us into the new creation. In Mary, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium — along with the human culture she inhabited and that inhabited her — were transfigured in the new creation. In other words, the “bread and wine” of her life was taken up into eternity and transubstantiated (1 Cor. 15:52). By her — and our — free consent to concelebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven and earth, we confer on all of creation the hope of glory (Rom. 8:18-30). On today’s gloriously joyful Feast, Mary stands as the perfect fulfillment of those extraordinary words of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #39):

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father the kingdom.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Let me conclude with the prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:

O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.

Amen.

St. 16670 dies for 5659

Franciszek Gajowniczek

St. Maximilian Kolbe

The head of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) project that studied the Shroud [the alleged burial cloth of Jesus] in the late 1970’s, when asked if he had a religious experience during the night he spent alone studying the linen cloth, said: “I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know if I could say I had a religious experience. But what struck me throughout the night was the disconnect. Between the face and the body. The body imaged on the Shroud is that of man who had been brutally beaten and tortured. But the face? It’s the face of serene confidence. They just don’t match.”

Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, whose feast day is today, was killed on this day in 1941 in a starvation bunker at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was cremated on August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption and was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 1982 as a martyr of charity.

The two numbers in the subject line above are the Nazi’s dehumanizing arm-branded I.D. codes for Fr. Kolbe and for the man he exchanged places with, Franciszek Gajowniczek. After a man had escaped from Auschwitz, ten men were selected to die of starvation as a reprisal for the crime of escaping. Gajowniczek, who was a Jew with a wife and children, was among those chosen to die. Fr. Kolbe, witnessing Gajowniczek’s wailing cries over the fate of his family if he died, said to the Sub-Commandant, Karl Fritzsch: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” The offer of exchange was accepted and Kolbe was sent to the starvation bunker. As the Pope said in his homily for the canonization:

Maximilian did not die but “gave his life for his brother.” In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love. And in this human death of his there was the clear witness borne to Christ: the witness borne in Christ to the dignity of man, to the sanctity of his life, and to the saving power of death in which the power of love is made manifest.

Most remarkable, as with the accounts of St. Edith Stein’s last days, was the manner in which Fr. Kolbe faced the agony of starvation. He was the epitome of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:21 — “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Let me offer you an account of Fr. Kolbe’s last days given by an eyewitness, Bruno Borgowiec, for your meditation.

The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the center as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.

Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.

Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this, I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.

They just don’t match.

Pillars of the World

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[This is my last post in this little series written on retreat. It may take a bit for me to get writing again. Blessings and Happy 4th of July!]

I just met a man the other day who teaches up North at an inner city all-boys high school. It sits right in middle of the most dangerous neighborhood in the city, a neighborhood filled with gang violence. The man himself is a character, quick-witted and very sharp. He was telling me the story after story about the boys he teaches, how difficult their lives are. It’s really unreal. Most of them are from lower income, single mother homes with dads nowhere in sight. Most of these young men, he said, in the absence of a strong positive male role model will inevitably wind up in a gang, addicted to heroine, in prison; and will probably be dead within 5 years. Within the strictures of public school, he tries to share his faith with these boys and encourage them to find a way out of their neighborhood and go to college. Many of the Hispanic boys have Catholic mothers, but the mothers are too afraid to take their boys to church by way of public transportation (the only way to get them there) as that’s frequently how these boys get picked up – i.e. kidnapped – by the gangs. He said lots of these boys really want to find God, do the right and go to church, but they don’t see how it’s possible.

So this man does all he can to give them devotions to pray on their own that can, as he said, “act in the place of Mass.” The Divine Mercy Chaplet is especially successful, he said, and lots of the boys will tell him they pray it every night; or pray, “Jesus, I trust in you” before sporting events or tests. He mentors them after school, using tutoring and coaching as an “in” to get their trust so he can give them wisdom on life. Some of the boys have gone on to college and escaped that world, but many or most have ended up in a gang. A number of them, dead. He said, “Man, if I could find other teachers willing to band together and bring faith to these kids, we could make a difference. I don’t care if they’re  Catholic or Protestant. It’s tough to find people wiling to put their faith out there. But I’m telling you these boys just need God in their life to get enough hope to escape that world of violence and become something more than the gangs have to offer. They want to feel like they belong, and that’s what church is supposed to give them. I’m always asking the saints to pray for these boys and I pray a decade of the rosary every day. It’s hard, though. It’s an uphill battle. They got the deck stacked again them at every point. I’ll tell you, if we had a tough Irish priest who could walk into this school and speak to these boys every day, it’d be a game changer. One strong father figure who represents God and ‘Bam!’ They’d be sold.”

Reminds me of Tattoos on the Heart.

By the way, that is the lay apostolate in full throttle.

His last comment reminded me of a real-life priest I was close to many years ago. He was an inner city priest whose parish was lower-middle class blue collar. He was affectionately called the “Street Padre” around his parish as he often wandered the streets during the daytime visiting apartments, shops, bars, restaurants and such to connect face to face with the people who lived within his parish boundaries. He would ask how a man’s sick wife was doing, query another man about why he’d been away from church for a few months, offer a blessing to a pregnant woman or hear a young man’s confession on the spot. This boy told the priest with brazen pride he’d been sleeping around and Father said, “Time for confession.” I walked away.

In fact, this young man – 16 years old – eventually got caught up in a drug ring and disappeared for quite a stretch of time. His mother would come to this priest in tears asking for his help. Eventually, the boy was found beat up badly and eaten away by the drugs. This priest stayed with him right to the end in the hospice, speaking into his ear right until the boy died. It was heart breaking, but the beauty of this Street Padre’s fatherly love was overwhelming. And although he was not able to save this boy from the dark world of drug violence, he was able to bring hope to the boy at the end, and to the mother. This priest confided in me once that for years upon years his personal prayer life had been like “eating dust,” dry and emotionally unrewarding. But, he said, “it gave me great strength for my work.” He said he knew it was God’s built-in gift to his priesthood so he could sacrifice for his people. When he was first ordained he traveled to Ars, France, the town of St. John Vianney, and asked God to make him a good parish priest who wants nothing more than “to remain in a parish to the very end.” It’s the one place where, he said, “you can make the soil of the graveyard a reliquary. And that’s my vocation.”

Hidden saints. Pillars of the world.

Slowly

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There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work. — Pope Benedict XVI

More conversation with the monk. I asked for advice on various topics and he gave it. We meandered around in the several times we met. I felt so blessed to be able to learn from him. Here are some fragments I meditatively wrote down later (which means I took his insights and expressed them in my own language).

Remember, Jesus always said ‘yes’ to the Father but He knew how to say ‘no’ to people’s demands. He received endless requests, but He was focused on His limited mission from the Father. Everything had to serve the mission. Walk around a tiny, backwater outpost of the Roman empire for 3 years, choose and entrust your whole work to 12 confused companions, visit villages to teach and work miracles, end up brutally executed. You have to determine your limits in achieving your mission and submit to them. Those who transgress their limits rarely stay long in a position. They skip around, starting new projects while previous ones fall into disrepair or vanish. They get exhausted, frustrated, bitter, angry, resentful and blame. And their’s blame to go around. But they refused to say ‘no’ so they pay the price.

In monastic life we take a vow of stability because we know it’s easy to get the “itch” to move on when things get tough. But we are very careful to make sure we don’t break our limits. We work hard, but the work is reasonable. Work is paced, not frantic. We move slowly but intently and consistently. When the bells ring for prayer, we stop what we are doing and pray. I know from the people who come here who are in ministry, who come to recover from burnout, that often it’s from the absurd responsibilities put on them — that they say ‘yes’ to — that cannot be sustained. Sometimes in the monastic literature this is called dissipation — the over-extension of ourselves into too many things, leaving us weary, unfocused, confused and subject to many temptations.

Even Jesus, being God in the flesh, was limited by His self-emptying in becoming man and could only accomplish limited good in His earthly life. How many sick, possessed, desperate, dying people longed for His touch? He knew that if He did well what He was sent to do, in the hands of the Father it would accomplish limitless good. The resurrection didn’t leave behind all of His life’s words and deeds, but filled them with immortality so that we can access them now sacramentally. It’s why St. Ignatius says that when we enter into a Gospel scene with prayerful imagination, we can experience the same grace those in the Gospel stories did. Jesus forgave the sinful woman, delivered the possessed man once, healed the hemorrhaging woman. But what He did for them He did, in God’s eternity, for all like them.

For Ignatius, the Gospel stories aren’t just nice memoirs that make us aware of how amazing Jesus was. Those stories, as God’s inspired Word, are themselves sacramental, are portals that grant us access to the same grace and encounter with Jesus. It’s quite amazing that the Catechism [1116] makes this connection by linking the story of Jesus’ healing the hemorrhaging woman to the seven sacraments: “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving.” This is no mere metaphor, but in a sense in the sacraments we, when we join that woman’s act of bold faith in Jesus, participate in that out-flowing of divine power she drew out of Him by touching the hem of His garment with faith.

But which of the people in the Gospel who encountered Jesus had any idea that their life in that moment was to become a point of access to God for all future (and past!) generations? Their limited, insignificant, nondescript lives God has used as living descriptions of His power to save in every age, giving their lives unlimited significance. Peter, the woman at the well, the Centurion, the Gerasene demoniac, the Syro-Phoenician woman. Or even Abraham, David, Moses, Bathsheba. All of them become permanent fixtures of grace in God’s masterful economy.

The even bigger point to me is this is also really the case with each of us. We call it the “communion of saints.” Our lives, everything we endure and achieve through our faith in Jesus has enduring significance far far beyond our tiny lives. It’s why saints become “patron saints” as some real event or personal characteristic of their lives has made of them a portal of divine grace for the rest of humanity. Each of us, if we are who God made us to be, opens a fresh spring of living water into the world that others can drink from. It’s why becoming a saint is the most effective form of ministry possible, as only saints can water the world with the divine Spirit. St. Therese demonstrates this so well, you don’t have to live long or achieve visibly impressive things to flood the world with God. Just learn to love God and neighbor well — peacefully not frantically — in your tiny place and leave the rest to Him.

It’s much easier to sleep at night that way.

Saint of Joy

St. Philip stepping on a Cardinal hat

Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri, 16th century Italian reformer-priest who was known for his joy, sense of humor and offbeat spirit. Philip, patron saint of comedians, demonstrates wonderfully how sanctity preserves and amplifies, even as it purifies, the unique character of each person’s personality. I have always loved this saint and begged for a double-portion of his spirit.

He is the saint known for telling jokes in the confessional to break the tension, throwing picnics in the middle of the street between visits to churches, breaking out into silly children’s songs in the presence of stuffy cardinals, shaving off half his beard before a meeting with a wealthy Roman family, walking out of the Confessional laughing uncontrollably, kicking balls through the streets of Rome dressed in his cassock as he skipped and sang with his followers, carrying bouquets of flowers and distributing them as he went along, intentionally mispronouncing Latin words in the Mass in the presence of a gravely serious scholar-bishop, making a priest in his Order who took himself too seriously sing a dirge at a wedding breakfast, wearing red jerseys over his black cassock, giving out crazy penances (e.g. to a priest known for eloquence, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon) and tossing around like a frisbee the cardinal hat offered him by the Pope.

Thank God we have this saint!

But what made this man a saint and not simply a cut-up was his deep humility and his intense love for God and people. His humor was never used to knock down, cut or wound, but to build up and wake up a sleepy church. To thaw out the Frozen Chosen. He was a Fool for Christ whose prophetic mission was to remind the faithful that joy, as Fr. Chardin once said, is the infallible sign of the presence of God and the premier indication that your spiritual life is in good order. His jovial manner was lived in service to lifting hearts and leading others into a place of light, hope and conversion to the Gospel of joy. Above all, he wanted to free the Roman clergy from the shackles of cynicism, ladder climbing and dour seriousness that confuses solemnity with somberness.

Once while he was praying on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1544 a globe of fire appeared in front of him and entered his mouth. Afterwards, he felt his heart swell in his chest — without pain — and was so overwhelmed by an intense feeling of love for God that he fell to the ground yelling, “Enough, enough, Lord! I can bear no more!” It became immediately apparent to him that the superabundance of joy that filled him was meant to be given away, shared with all he would meet along the way. He had been commissioned to be “drunk with love” (Acts 2:13-15!) by the God whose love is joy, to permit divine joy to break into a world grown old, bitter, tired and angry in sin.

Philip the priest-saint is an electric sign to clergy. How desperately we need deacons and priests and bishops and popes who ingest Fire and are filled with joy, whose lives — uniquely — cry out to both church and world: Sursum corda! “Lift up your hearts!”

In the words of Pope Benedict addressing his fellow clergy:

It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.

Let us sing!

Jubilate Deo omni terra (shout joyfully to God all the earth).
Servite Domino in laetitia (serve the Lord in gladness).
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!