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.

Mary Mother of the Church

Pope Francis instituted a new liturgical Memorial feast, celebrated on the Monday after Pentecost, in honor of Mary “Mother of the Church.” The purpose of this new feast? Robert Cardinal Sarah:

This celebration will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed, the Virgin who makes her offering to God.

This feast will help us discover in Mary the sweetest fruit of the Paschal Mystery, the Woman who became all-Fire because she was all-Yes to God. From the Annunciation to the Cross to Pentecost, she is the perfect realization of free human cooperation in God’s saving plan made known in Christ. Her immaculate reception of the Pentecostal detonation of the new creation in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13-15) permitted the radiant Light, blazing out of the empty tomb of the risen Jesus, uninhibited access into the heart of the world.

At Pentecost the same Spirit who first overshadowed Mary to enflesh God, now came to complete the Incarnation by inviting all of humanity to become the Body of Christ and allow Christ to come to “full stature” (Eph. 4:13). You might say that the whole of creation was, in nuce, wholly re-created by God in, with and through Mary’s human and maternal flesh, from whom God took His own flesh. In Mary, from her Immaculate Conception to her glorious Assumption, the whole Body of Christ was mystically present in its perfection.

And then there’s this. Mary is a laywoman made perfect in grace. She who is “tainted nature’s solitary boast,” she who is “more honorable that the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim,” stands among the lay faithful, giving magnified voice to their thanksgiving, praise to the God who lifts up the lowly.

As New Eve, in consecrating the whole world to God by co-offering herself with her Son’s priestly and eucharistic sacrifice, Mary becomes the supreme icon of the lay vocation in the world. As a wife and mother at home with her husband and child in Nazareth; as a refugee in flight into Egypt; as guest celebrating at the wedding feast at Cana; as a widow standing at the foot of Golgotha along a public street outside the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem; as a woman at prayer in an upstairs apartment in Jerusalem on the feast Pentecost — Mary casts out into the world, far and wide, the graced seeds of the Kingdom.

It’s why we consecrate ourselves, nations and the world to her heart. Her heart is consecrated earth. Indeed, it is through the human heart that God empties out His Spirit to renew the face of the earth and make it again into His Garden (John 19:30-42). Consecrating ourselves to her is like jumping on an already racing meteor hurling headlong toward the Kingdom of God.

Christ the New Adam makes “all things new” precisely by joining Mary, the New Eve, to Him, so together they — in a world of violence, tyranny, hate, apathy — can walk the via dolorosa and bring all things — even death itself — under the unconquerable dominion of self-wasting, life-giving, sacrificial love.

Desolate? Settle down, it’ll all be clear

[re-post from 2016]

The fifth: In time of desolation never to make a change; but to be firm and constant in the resolutions and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination in which he was in the preceding consolation. Because, as in consolation it is rather the good spirit who guides and counsels us, so in desolation it is the bad, with whose counsels we cannot take a course to decide rightly. — St. Ignatius of Loyola

Last year, a woman I know went through a stretch of difficult challenges and was feeling increasingly jaded, discouraged and depleted. She was experiencing what Ignatius calls desolation, which undercuts your resolve to press on in the good you have already committed to, clouding your vision so that what once looked hopeful and possible — in spite of life’s inescapable challenges — now appears hopeless, useless, meaningless.

“Suddenly,” she said, “the issues I had with my husband, my children and my job seemed to magnify out of proportion; they went, almost overnight, from being normal reasons for patience and love to being causes of anger and resentment.” She added, “I could really sympathize with people just do this 180 in marriage, suddenly turning what were once seen as normal differences that require faithfulness into scathing judgments and irresolvable reasons for divorce.”

She also said, “Looking back, among other things, I realized that I had stopped praying during the time the challenges ramped up. It just happened, I didn’t have a good reason for it. But that was a huge mistake, since without prayer I lost my center of gravity and source of strength.” It was a girlfriend of hers, who is a devout Evangelical, who called her on it and invited her to join her prayer group. Which she did, and, she said, “I noticed almost immediately the return of a sense of hopefulness, and the resolve to set my hands back on the plow and stop looking back.”

I have found over the years that the majority of bad decisions I have made were made in the midst of “desolation” – when I was in a state of confusion, fear, depression or anxiety. It’s so incredibly tempting to shift course when darkness comes, because when you find yourself in a state of desolation there arises deep within an almost compulsive need to break free from its grip, to seek immediate relief by running from the problem. In that frame of mind you easily succumb to the fantasy that everything will be better if you just change direction.

But, in the words of Big Sean,

…the grass ain’t always greener on the other side,
It’s green where you water it

Ignatius’ counsel is clear: Do not seek to resolve your problems by simply rearranging the furniture, start by attending to the state of your soul. Before you reconsider any previously discerned decisions, wait until the storms of desolation pass and you have a restored sense of peace within which you can think clearly. A healthy human spirit in sync with the Holy Spirit gives birth to inner freedom and peace, while an unhealthy human spirit in sync with an Evil spirit conjures inner compulsiveness, confusion and turmoil.

So many bad decisions can be avoided by simply keeping firm to this Rule.

I thought of all this when I heard Philip Phillips’ song Home the other day. The refrain captures the spirit of Rule Five wonderfully. The last lines remind us that in the midst of our desolation, when we feel lost and ‘homeless,’ we need to seek out those safe spaces (or people) in our lives that are our “homes,” where peace, trust, hope and all the 12 fruits of the Spirit abide. There, above all in prayer, we can think aright and become aware of the fact that God never ever leaves us alone. Indeed, He who suffered total loss and desolation, and descended into hell for us, makes even the darkest places in life our Home.

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Here’s the song:

Losing Power with Judith Snow

Judith Snow. selfconscious.ca

“Jennifer,” who regularly comments on this Blog with profound insights, left a comment this morning on yesterday’s post. I just had to share it with all readers, it is so rich. I also appended a brief interview with Jean Vanier, who, as for Jennifer, is a personal hero of mine. Thank you, Jennifer, for opening up the mystery of “almsgiving” (literally, mercy-giving) for us this Lenten day, radiant in the life of Judith Snow. May she rest in the peace of the new creation.

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During grad school and after I left, I earned money by working in two group homes for adults who had developmental and intellectual disabilities. I had been profoundly moved by the writing of Jean Vanier, specifically, “Becoming Human”. I completed a diploma in the field of social work pertaining to people with such challenges. During that time I crossed paths with an unforgettable woman named Judith Snow. She was an incredible advocate for people living with profound disabilities, especially those who couldn’t use words to communicate. She herself was born with a type of dystrophy that left her quadraplegic and very tiny her entire life. She was incredible, intuitive, brilliant…a force. While she extremely intelligent, because of her physical limitations and the era she was born in she grew up with the unique experience of being surrounded by other children who were profoundly intellectually disabled. She was a keen observer and dedicated herself to learning how to communicate her silent peers. She took me under her wing for which I am so grateful. (Here’s her bio from when she had an art exhibit at Canada’s premier museum: https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/whos-drawing-the-lines-the-journey-of-judith-snow). Sadly she passed away suddenly a few years ago. Huge loss to this world!

From Judith I learned (or at least she tried to teach me) soulishness. I don’t know how to call it. It’s that kind of uncomfortable silent being with another until you “get”one another deeply without talking. She taught me to really feel in my bones the lie of utilitarianism in determining the value of a life. I understood through the people she introduced me to what Vanier was speaking of; I learned the inherent worth and dignity of every life as a bearer of God’s image. These people were heralds of light in this world that is too quick to discard and objectify others

This morning I came across this reflection from B16 that I thought encapsulated the truth of our identity in this vein.

Pope Benedict:
The Enlightenment was sated with demands for morality. It sought to reduce religion to morality. But morality was even further reduced—this time to utilitarianism, to the concept of human well-being. Morality was the measure of the useful, and immorality, accordingly, of the foolish. The definitive and decisive factor for the individual, and in particular for his well-being and happiness, was not feeling good, but being good. Man is not made greater by a promise of autonomy, but smaller, for he is truly himself only when he transcends himself. He belongs more truly to himself when he belongs to God than when he wants to belong only to himself. Morality cannot mean that we ourselves determine what seems useful to us and to the world; on the contrary, it must be a listening to the words of God in the words of creation. We must not and we may not adjust creation to our own liking so that it will be serviceable to us, for in that way we destroy the world and ourselves with it—we have experienced this in our own day. To listen to the words of God means to conform ourselves to God. When we become conformable to him, creation continues to be good and we ourselves become good. The Lord himself has come to meet us and his commandment is simple: that we conform ourselves to the truth. It is his commandment that we correspond with the love he has offered us, and all his commandments are but signposts directing us to the secret of love and so to the foundation of truth. Morality lives thus from the mystery, from the manifestation, of the love of Jesus Christ. When it is separated from this mystery, it becomes fanatical and narrow. When it loses its relationship with this mystery, it becomes just a compulsion in man; and how inhuman morality can become when it is just a compulsion to force hope on the world—of that, too, we have had ample experience in our day. From: Homily for May 16, 1985, in Ordinariatskorrespondenz, no. 15, 1985

Saint of Gentleness

[re-post from 2012]

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. — St Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales is known as the “saint of gentleness.” He himself had an angry, even explosively angry temperament, and had to work hard at exercising gentle patience both with himself and with others. He came to a profound insight, through his own inner struggle, into the importance of not doing violence to the many “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” (Is. 42:3) both within and without. He counseled countless spiritual directors and Confessors to correct and reprove others, when necessary, with a firm and patient love, and never with impatient anger. He famously said, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.”

But he was most celebrated for his counsel to gentleness in dealing with distractions in prayer, or in facing the dark realization of one’s own sins, weaknesses and failings. After counseling many hundreds of men and women, he could see how crippling were the effects of a self-recriminating response to one’s own many imperfections. Such a strategy, he said, only serves to cripple hope and weaken one’s loving devotion to God. Beating oneself up transforms genuine spirituality into a nursery for compulsive wound-licking and chronic nit-picking judgment of others’ faults. Such an incurved ego makes one unable to assume Christ’s “other-centered” posture of love.

Once he wrote to a woman who was terribly discouraged by her constant distractions during prayer,

If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently and replace it tenderly in its Master’s presence. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back and place it again and again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.

When I came across de Sales in the early 90’s, his approach really changed my mindset in a significant way. My poor habits, repeated sins, easily distracted mind and fickle emotions often brought me to a grinding halt of discouragement. But with his gentle approach — to use a C.S. Lewis image — what were once only dark alleys leading to even darker cul-de-sacs became a Wardrobe that opened out from the narrow press of musty and stifling shadows into the bright and spacious world of Narnia. And though Narnia is still frozen in the grip of winter, hope burns fiercely bright there; for in Narnia, the Lion of Judah, once slaughtered by our sins on the Altar of Sacrifice, refuses to repudiate us in irrevocable justice, but instead embraces us in the gentleness of forever mercy.

I shared this “de Sales” insight with a Camelite nun I met on a retreat, and she said something like this:

Oh yes, I also love his advice. It’s only when I realized that God’s primary relationship with us is gentle mercy that I was really able to combine the quest for perfection Jesus commands (Matt. 5:48) with the reality of my fragility. The harder you try for purity, the more dirt shows up. I always thought that’s why Luke’s parallel version (Luke 6:36) of Matthew’s “be perfect as your Father is perfect” was “be merciful as your Father is merciful” — because they go together. Mercy, perfection.

I once thought perfection and my frailty were opposed, with perfection seeking to remove all of my frailty, my faults. But then I came to believe that they are a two-sided coin. Our limits can become a frame for the artwork that is our life. Just like any great piece of artwork needs to have defined limits to contain and focus the Artist’s intent to create a new expression of His genius. Mercy does not do violence to our frailty, but gilds it in honor with His own beauty. That’s what St. Augustine’s “happy fault of Adam” means to me, that mercy turns my junk into beauty. The logic of the Cross.

Perfection is when you’re finally able to offer God, with equal confidence and gratitude, your weakness and your strength as a full palette in service to His artwork. What a relief.

Never say you are too busy for Him

[re-post 2014]

My secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to him is loving him. — St. Teresa of Calcutta

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity, they taught me four things.

First, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring lasting hope to others because you have pulled your anchor out of the immovable Rock.

Second, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring enduring love to others because you have ceased to receive that love from its inexhaustible Wellspring.

Third, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring Jesus to others because you have ceased to know Him, and have settled with only knowing of Him.

Fourth, without prayer you lose the capacity to lead others to trust in God because you no longer trust Him. You only spread cynicism, discouragement, doubt and despair.

Yes, you can’t give what you don’t have. No prayer, no God. Know prayer, know God. No wonder St. Teresa of Avila reminded her Sisters so often that the devil has no better strategy for bringing us down than to lead us away from prayer, as he knows well that when we are prayer-less, we are powerless and alone. But when we pray, the evil spirits tremble in terror as we — made royal priests in baptism — permit God’s redemptive power free entry into creation and unleash the triumph of the Cross.

Once when she was in the outhouse, St. Teresa tells us, she was praying and the devil appeared to her, furious that she would not cease praying even there. With her sharp wit, she replied to him, “Don’t worry about that, what goes up is for God, what goes down is for you.”

Or there’s the 4th century story of a desert monk in Syria who, in a vision, saw a demon urging another demon to go and awaken a sleeping monk to torture him with dark thoughts. And he heard the other demon say, “I cannot do this, for one time when I awakened him he got up and burned me by singing psalms and praying.”

To reinforce the primacy of prayer in the work we did, the Sisters had this quote from John 15:5 framed in my room, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Sister who was my supervisor left a handwritten note in my box my last day there, “Be faithful to daily prayer, Brother Tom. Cling to God. Fill yourself with Him so you can give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, love to the loveless, hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless. Never say you are too busy for Him. Carry within you the Kingdom everywhere you go and speak often to the indwelling King. God bless you.”

St. John the Brutal

Lord, you return gladly and lovingly to lift up the one who offends you, but I do not turn to raise and honor the one who annoys me. — St. John of the Cross

For today’s feast of St. John of the Cross, I will simply share with you my favorite passage in all of his work. Which I have framed. He wrote this as a “counsel of perfection” to men who had joined the Discalced Carmelite Order and were still novices. When I first read it as I was writing my dissertation, I was left breathless. Reading it gave me a whole new view of life, of life’s challenges, and what it means to allow the call to holiness to shape your relationship to every person in your life, especially the most challenging.

To make it my own, I have over the years bracketed the word “monastery” and replaced it with whatever challenged place I am in life, e.g. marriage, family, work, school. I have shared this before, but I hope, as it does for me, it never grows old for you.

…engrave this truth on your heart, and it is that you have not come to [monastery] 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 monastery] 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 [monastic life], you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

My first spiritual director was deeply shaped by St. John’s work. When I would share with him my trials and tribulations, he would frequently say something to this effect, “Good. Now remember what John teaches us. If you want to discern God’s will, start by identifying people in your life that bother you most. Who irritates you most? Behold your God! They’re your first vocational call! I can infallibly say that these are God’s clarion call to you: ‘Love these and then you will be ready to do my will elsewhere!’ That’s the real test that you’re serious about this Jesus thing.”

Oh yeah, like “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).

Servant of God Dorothy Day, who also loved St. John, said something similar: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

So I blame it all on St. John.

Brutal.